Success in Residuals Programs Requires Knowledge of the Market

Lise LeBlanc helps organic residuals suppliers connect with their customers. Her success with municipal and private-sector clients holds lessons for biosolids recycling programs.
Success in Residuals Programs Requires Knowledge of the Market
Lise LeBlanc, with a soil amendment made from alkaline-stabilized biosolids from the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Regional Municipality.

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Lise LeBlanc started a consulting career 18 years ago, helping farmers in Canada’s Atlantic provinces develop crop management programs.

Along the way, she saw a critical need to manage nutrients on land, “to ensure that we don’t have excessive nutrients leading to environmental issues, or not enough nutrients so that farmers don’t get good crop yields and quality.”

It was then her business, LP Consulting in Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia, took an additional direction. Today, she helps businesses and municipalities turn organic waste materials into resources and market them, usually as farm fertilizers and soil amendments. She sees big potential for residuals of many kinds, including municipal biosolids, as commercial fertilizers grow more expensive and as the farm community looks to more sustainable practices.

She believes the biggest key to successful farm-based waste-to-resource programs is understanding the market: To be viable, a product must deliver provable economic value and fit in with farmers’ existing practices. LeBlanc shared a broad picture of Canada’s residuals market in an interview with TPO. Many of her insights translate well to biosolids recycling projects.

What triggered your interest in residuals as a viable product for farmers?

LeBlanc: I’m really interested in the economics of growing crops: How much money are we putting in, and what are we getting out? It became clear that straight inorganic commercial fertilizers were becoming more expensive. Farmers were cutting back. Soil pH and nutrient levels decreased. So I started asking what was out there that could improve my farm clients’ crop production.

What was your first venture into the residuals area?

LeBlanc: We started with the Brooklyn Power utility here in in Nova Scotia. They were taking wood ash to a landfill and paying a tipping fee. That was very expensive. They were interested in reducing expenses but also in whether this material could be a resource. We did tests on the material, secured environmental permits and conducted research on 26 farm fields to look at the soil health over time. We found we were increasing yield, improving soil pH and increasing nutrients. I encouraged my farm clients to use the wood ash in their crop production programs. As they saw improvements in their fields, neighbors noticed, and it grew from there.

How exactly is the wood ash beneficial?

LeBlanc: It has a lot of nutrients, in particular potash, phosphorus, sulfur and calcium. It also acts like lime by increasing soil pH. It was like a huge multivitamin. All of a sudden, farmers were greatly increasing production at a fraction of the cost of commercial lime and fertilizer. On really poor soils, we more than doubled yield and quality.

What is the scope of your company’s services on projects like this one?

LeBlanc: We work for the company on testing, permits and regulatory compliance. We handle marketing, with demonstration sites, booths and farm meetings to make farmers aware. Then we work with the farmers. How much do you need? What’s the best way to use it? Put in front of corn? Apply it in fall or spring? We determine the tonnage to send to each farm and work with trucking companies to make sure they deliver on a timely basis. If issues with the public arise, we put on public meetings and talk to the media.

Have you been involved with municipal biosolids projects?

LeBlanc: Halifax Regional Municipality had been putting wastewater sludge into the harbor, which was not acceptable. They looked at alternatives in what they called the Clean Harbor Solution. They decided on an alkaline-stabilization program through N-Viro Systems Canada, which is now owned by Walker Industries.

They approached me for help in working with farmers. I looked at the product analysis and thought it was great. We had nitrogen and phosphorus in the biosolids, high potash from the cement kiln dust, and lime to increase soil pH. We did have pushback from environmental groups and went through our painful years, but now we have a waiting list of farmers. We secured a CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) label for the product. Because it’s sold as fertilizer, it doesn’t have to follow provincial biosolids guidelines.

What are some keys to a successful waste-to-resource program?

LeBlanc: It’s important to understand the market. It’s not enough to say your product has N, P and K in it and farmers should take it. The agriculture community will only embrace a product if there is a good return on their dollar. Take the Halifax product, for example. To buy lime and commercial fertilizer to replace a tonne of N-Viro product, farmers would have to spend $125 to $150. So if they’re paying $40 to $50 a tonne for the product, that’s a significant return. It takes somebody to show them that — a lot of presentations and penciling out the economics at the table.

Apart from pure economics, what factors influence success?

LeBlanc: What’s the soil type in your locality? If farms already have a high soil pH, then an alkaline-stabilized biosolids will not have a market. If the soil already has good organic matter, then organic matter in a compost is not a selling feature. You need to understand the growing season farmers are working with. During peak times when the farmers need the product, you need to have a lot of trucks lined up. Some residuals companies will have just a couple of trucks going. Farmers can’t wait and will just cancel. They’ll apply commercial fertilizer because it’s faster. It’s important to have a good relationship with the farm community. If you don’t have one, work with somebody who does. I recommend finding a local agrologist who is highly respected among farmers — someone who knows what will sell and what won’t.

How do you recommend approaching community relations?

LeBlanc: The way farmers manage the product is important. You want to reduce neighbor conflicts as much as possible. Make sure you don’t apply it on weekends. Make sure you don’t apply it in the heat of summer when you could generate odors, because odors will shut you down. Instead of having farmers store material on the fields, ship it when they’re ready to use it. In our programs, once we adopted these practices, essentially 99 percent of calls and concerns stopped. If something does go wrong, deal with it up front. Don’t hide it, because it will come out, and then it’s difficult to get trust back.
One thing most people don’t think about is: Your first face to the public is your truckers. They don’t need to be your PR people, and they shouldn’t be; that’s not their training. But spend some time with them to at least let them know what the product is that they’re hauling. Give them brochures so if someone stops and asks a question, they can say, “This is a biosolids compost (or whatever it is); here’s some information, and you can call the person listed on the back.”

The key to communication is being honest. I’ve conducted public meetings. I prefer one-on-ones because public meetings can be hijacked. Meet one on one with people who have concerns. Provide information. Listen to them. You’ll have those who’ve heard bad things about residuals and aren’t sure. With information, you can bring them around. You also have those who, whatever you give them or tell them, will never change their minds.

Besides the products you’ve already mentioned, what other programs has your company been involved with?

LeBlanc: We run a wood ash program for the J.D. Irving forest products company out of New Brunswick. Our wood ash programs are booked now about two years in advance, before the product is even made. We’re looking at moving chicken manure and livestock manure that farmers can’t use on their own land. We’re also looking at soil blending and composting.

What are some other residual products that you see as having potential?

LeBlanc: One is pulp and paper sludge. Some companies try to burn it, but it has high water content, so that’s very inefficient. Some years ago, a company tried a land application program, but it wasn’t well managed, and odors shut it down. But I’ve seen it on agricultural land, and it works fantastic. I think it has big potential.

Fish waste is an excellent source of nitrogen and other nutrients for farms, but again, there’s a need to address odor. You could co-compost it. Biofuel is another potential market for using residuals. To the general public, if they’re uncomfortable with biosolids, if there is an “ick factor,” well, you’re not using it to grow food. You’re using it to grow energy. There’s probably residual material out there that we don’t even know about yet that could be excellent for waste-to-resource programs.

What’s the benefit of co-composting?

LeBlanc: Co-composting can increase the value of a compost and make it easier to move. Suppose you have a material that has a nutrient value of $5 or $10 per tonne. That’s not going to be very attractive to the farm community. But what if there’s another residuals company nearby that has a different product, so that if you blended those two together, it’s worth $50 a tonne? Now you certainly can go back to the table and talk about moving that product.

What are some examples of residuals that could be profitably mixed?

LeBlanc: Adding biosolids to compost can greatly increase the nutrient value, but then you have to deal with public concern about biosolids. That’s not difficult in the agricultural sector, but then farmers have to deal with their neighbors. Another material that can be composted is digestate from food waste, or food waste mixed with animal manure.

How would you characterize the future potential for residuals?

LeBlanc: I think there is huge potential for residuals. The price of fertilizer continues to go up. The ability to easily extract phosphorus from the earth is decreasing. In the next 30 years, that phosphorus will be extremely expensive. Phosphorus is key to plant growth, so it’s important that governments support residuals for land application. If we’re to be sustainable in the future, we can’t keep putting these residual nutrients into landfills.

Can regulatory agencies play a role in advancing residuals programs?

LeBlanc: Departments of environment need to improve their approaches if we’re to move ahead on these sustainable programs. Many departments say they support sustainable programs, but in reality they make it very difficult. Many don’t like to look at research conducted in other areas. They say, “We’re different here.” But in reality they’re not so different.

Why do we set programs back by decades because their first response is to say no, regardless if there are similar successful programs elsewhere? That’s not supportive of sustainability. I understand they need to ensure that a product is safe, but when they have all the data to show that it’s safe, they shouldn’t put up roadblocks to making programs successful. That’s frustrating for companies that want to provide sustainable programs. It all comes back to sustainability: reducing waste, changing waste to resources and using those resources.


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