Dumping “Human Waste”? No, They’re Not.

Ill-informed reporters often grossly mischaracterize biosolids. It’s time for clean-water agencies to step up with education and end this harmful practice.

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I subscribe to various Google alerts, and it seems every week I get links to news articles about a clean-water agency spreading “human waste” on farmland.

This needs to stop. The stories are really about land application of biosolids which, despite its source, is something altogether different from “human waste.” A quick Internet search around that offensive term brings links to multiple articles with a variety of characterizations:

  • Treated human waste
  • Concentrated human waste
  • Processed human waste
  • Human manure
  • Composted human waste

And of course, just plain “human waste.” This is incredibly wrong and unfair. The reporters might as well go ahead and use the four-letter word that starts with S. No matter what adjectives come before those two words, and no matter what (usually half-baked) technical explanations follow, the damage is done. There is no way to unring the bell.

Multiple repercussions

To put it bluntly, these news stories make it sound as if cities are essentially having a very large and long bowel movement on their rural neighbors’ land.

The words “human waste” are part of the reason that despite decades of evidence that biosolids are safe and effective when used responsibly, we still see counties and townships proposing ordinances to ban land application. They’re part of the reason some natural foods retailers have banned foods grown with biosolids from their stores. And they’re part of the reason why negative perceptions of wastewater treatment and treatment plants persist.

So how can we stop this gross example of untruth in labeling? The time to act is not after the newspaper carries the headline article about “human waste” being spread. The time is before that reporter touches fingers to keyboard.

First, do no harm

Of course, the best prevention of this form of bad publicity is a quality beneficial-use operation. Sometimes (not always), controversies about biosolids start because the clean-water agency was less than fastidious about its field operations or didn’t do proper public outreach up front.

The next best prevention is outreach to news reporters and editors. Newspaper people, except for some environmental reporters, are generalists, often lacking in science training and almost certainly lacking in knowledge of wastewater treatment. Fortunately, almost every newspaper has built-in wastewater educators in its community. And they, of course, are the local clean-water operators. Many if not most operators make it a point to get elected officials familiar with their facilities. Is it not equally important to have the local newspaper staff on board?

Pay a visit

So the question is: Have you visited a reporter or editor lately? If you’re doing the job of outreach properly, you should be on a first-name basis with the local news editor and with the beat reporter who covers your city government or utility commission. At the bare minimum, those people should know enough to call you anytime an issue or question arises about anything that has to do with your plant.

It’s generally not hard to make a connection. It may be challenging to get access if your local paper is the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe, although on the plus side those papers are likely to have environmental reporters with at least some knowledge of the industry.

If your local paper is the weekly or daily Any City Gazette, you should have no trouble getting an audience with the right person or people. This doesn’t need to be a big production. Reporters and editors are busy people and wouldn’t likely sit down for an hour’s presentation even if you decided to prepare one.

For starters, about all you have to do is make a call and get permission to stop by for five minutes sometime well away from the paper’s deadline. Introduce yourself, drop off a small packet of information and a business card, have a get-acquainted chat and invite the person to call you anytime. If you want to be a little bold, offer a plant tour.

Across the board

There’s no reason you shouldn’t also do this for your local news radio station and even for the TV stations that cover your area.

Once you have made the introduction, pass your new contacts a note now and then about things happening at your place — compliance milestones, staff promotions, new equipment installed and anything else of interest. Don’t make a pest of yourself, but let the news people know you’re there to help them.

The more clean-water operators have personal connections with their local reporters and editors, the less often we’ll have to read about “human waste” being spread out in the country. And in general, the more connections, the more positive treatment we’ll see for the clean-water profession in our news media.


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