Public Acceptance of Biosolids Recycling
This month’s library is all about public acceptance. It is true that biosolids haven’t typically been the most popular entry in the range of residuals-based soil amendments. From my perspective, we deserve a place at the top. The question is: ‘How do we get there from here?’ Public acceptance of biosolids has been a sticking point for decades. Years back we had a seminal work on this topic sponsored by WERF, with Ned Beecher from NEBRA at helm. What they found was that the vast majority of people have no idea what happens after they flush the toilet. This last Biofest we had a presentation by a doctoral student at WSU about research she’s doing on public acceptance of the biosolids compost that is produced in La Conner, WA. Caitlin’s results showed that a majority of people, both within and around La Conner, support beneficial use of biosolids and the principles of what that beneficial use represent. A similar survey in King County also showed that over 80% of the people questioned supported beneficial use of biosolids. Somehow we have to translate these surveys to everyday reality. To see what others had done on the topic, I turned to the peer review literature. The first article in the library presents results from a phone survey in the SE U.S. Residents from two communities, one with an active and vocal group of biosolids opponents and the other with no real knowledge of biosolids, were included in the survey. The authors note the importance of perceived risks and the seriousness of these in comparison to actual risks in the world of public opinion. Let me quote: “While programs to increase the public’s knowledge have helped in educating the public with facts, little attention has been given to addressing the values and beliefs driving the public’s perception of risks associated with biosolids recycling”. The results indicate increased acceptance with growing distance from application sitesnot clear if this was linear… The authors also noted that the importance of increased communication to stakeholders and that women were generally more concerned about safety than men. Next we go to Las Vegas, where residents are well aware of risks. Here the survey focused on use of biosolids composts. Most people strongly supported use of the composts on non-food chain crops. Health and safety were more important than costs. The better educated and, again, the men were more supportive. Again, the authors reached a conclusion for more outreach and outreach geared specifically to different types of stakeholders. From the Las Vegas article we go to two sort of contradictory articles, one in Ireland and one in New Zealand. In Ireland a wide range of people were surveyed on biosolids, with the goal of understanding biosolids management in light of sustainability indicators. The survey was seen as a first stage of a process. Different surveys were developed for different targeted groups, all centered on the same sustainability theme, but each geared to a different level of sophistication regarding knowledge of biosolids. It turns out that everyone liked the sustainability indicators, but not everyone liked the biosolids. Again, transparency, research, public involvement and public participation all ranked high. Then we go to the land of Frodo. Don’t feel slighted here, but the authors point out that increased public opposition to land application in the US prompted the study. And, just think, you probably not only saw all three of the Lord of the Rings movies but went to see the Hobbit too. The authors report that the people included in the survey stressed the need for ‘humility’ among program managers, the importance of acknowledging areas of uncertainty and of including ‘values’ in the technical decision-making process. With that said, many of the surveyed individuals favored land application, as long as there were assurances of transparency and protection of public health. From the survey on biosolids we go to an interesting study from Australia on reclaimed water. The authors note that everyone always sites the ‘yuck factor’ as the primary reason reclaimed water isn’t more readily acceptable. The authors dug deeper and came up with a model to partition the ‘yuck’ factor into different components. This was tested on citizens in communities where reclaimed water schemes were impending. They found that the emotional component was difficult to change but that things like organizational trust and risk perceptions were more open to change and should be the focus of public acceptance efforts. I’m writing this up as we are getting ready to make our 4th luncheon from the bounty from the garden at the treatment plant. And the one thing that appears to be absent from all of these surveys is a demonstration of just how good this stuff is for growing plants. As Kristen McIvor says, repeatedly, when talking about the benefits of biosolids for community gardens: “It works.” Including that message in any outreach program might just be the key to improving public acceptance.