Maile Lono-Batura Brings a Wealth of Experience and Keen Insight to Communication About Biosolids

WEF’s new director of sustainable biosolids programs believes a key to communication is helping people understand the role they play in the nutrient cycle.

Maile Lono-Batura Brings a Wealth of Experience and Keen Insight to Communication About Biosolids

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For many years biosolids have been a key point of focus for the Water Environment Federation. Now the federation is looking to help its members and the water sector advance beneficial use initiatives by creating the position of director of sustainable biosolids programs.

For that role WEF selected Maile Lono-Batura, who previously served 22 years as executive director of Northwest Biosolids, based in the state of Washington. There she dedicated herself to fostering sustainable solutions for biosolids, and to helping generate funding for research.

Lono-Batura’s interest in biosolids goes all the way back to high school, where she heard a presentation on the subject in a biology class; it included a segment on using biosolids in a sustainable forestry program.

Aspiring to a career involving biosolids, she earned a bachelor’s degree in community and environmental planning with an environmental studies minor from the University of Washington. She later received a master of nonprofit leadership from Seattle University.

In her new position, Lono-Batura serves as the WEF lead for all biosolids activities. That includes acting as a central coordinator on national issues for the organization’s members and the larger water sector, in concert with WEF Member Associations and regional biosolids organizations.

She also communicates with entities including agricultural, environmental and climate change groups, along with the news media. She helps utilities and regional groups that are facing challenges to their biosolids programs and promotes research on biosolids safety and efficacy.

Lono-Batura talked about her role in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

Isn’t it unusual for a young person to pursue biosolids as a career aspiration?

Lono-Batura: People thought I was a little nuts. They asked, “Is there any work in that field?” And I said, “Are you kidding? This is job security. It’s not ever going away.” It has been inspiring. You deal with a great cross-section of people, and it’s magic. It’s fun to be a part of.

What were some of your proudest accomplishments at Northwest Biosolids?

Lono-Batura: Northwest Biosolids is a pretty small nonprofit with a budget under $250,000, with 200 members at our highest, and typically 120 to 150 depending on the year. But with that group of agencies and people, we were able to leverage upwards of $3 million in research funding over time to answer questions our utility members got from their communities. In addition, where needed, we were there to provide a unified voice on biosolids for utilities across the Northwest and in the national conversation.

What was WEF’s rationale for creating the position you now hold?

Lono-Batura: WEF has a Residuals and Biosolids Committee that has done excellent work. They have done a lot of heavy lifting that includes setting up the Resource Recovery and Recycling Library (www.biosolidsresources.org). They created this new position to help provide a unified voice and to help utilities figure out, budget-wise and sustainability-wise, how to manage their biosolids in ways that return nutrients to the earth. 

Why is it important in this time and place to advocate for sustainable biosolids programs and beneficial use?

Lono-Batura: We’re having important conversations around topics like climate change and sustaining soil for food security. Those conversations are much more heightened now. There are opportunities for utilities to bring biosolids into the picture, along with clean water and renewable energy.

What do you see as some of the most promising approaches to and technologies for beneficial use?

Lono-Batura: There is never one perfect fit for all utilities. They all have to adjust based on what they have available to them. The one thing that binds them all together is that there are nutrients and energy in biosolids. How do utilities take what is being sent to them, make resources from that, and return them to the environment? Anything that helps do that at the highest level is the most hopeful technology. The lens to put on biosolids for the future is how to make the highest use of all those resources.

After a long track record of successful biosolids programs, why do we still see public skepticism about beneficial use?

Lono-Batura: What is making people skeptical boils down to ownership. It’s ownership of what we put in our bodies, what we ingest and what we buy. We need to see the personal role we all play in the biosolids story. Sometimes it’s hard for people to recognize that when we flush, we’re part of that system. It’s taking ownership of the products we consume, and it’s companies taking ownership of the life cycles of the products they make. If you think about it in that way, you can understand better that wastewater treatment is not an us-and-them problem. It’s a you-and-me-and-society problem. We all need to think about how we play a role.

Beyond the concept of ownership, what are some specific obstacles to beneficial use initiatives?

Lono-Batura: PFAS, microplastics, the “ick factor” — all those are rooted in the concept of owning it. If there is one tip I would give to utilities having a difficult time communicating the important work they do, it’s to bring people to the plant. Show them that magnificent system of taking nature’s way of treating wastewater, putting it on a factory level, and making resources from it. Take people out to the fields to see what biosolids look like and what the application process looks like. We’re using what we put into the system. It’s the whole farm-to-table-to-farm concept. Utilities play an important role in that circular economy.

How do you see WEF advancing beneficial use now that your position has been created?

Lono-Batura: It’s about proactive communication — opening conversations and fostering ones that have been opened but need to be advanced further. The position is focused on having that voice as a central point of contact for WEF. If there is one thing I learned from Northwest Biosolids, it’s how important it is to have a network. So while I’m in the position of director, I rely heavily on the utilities because they are the front-line workers. I rely on the researchers because they are the ones who come up with answers to the questions we receive. I talk with regulators to understand more about the challenges they see. It’s about how we can all come together as a unified voice around biosolids reuse.

What would you say was your most effective communication strategy while with Northwest Biosolids?

Lono-Batura: It was building on a foundation of research. If we don’t have research, we can’t provide outreach materials. We can’t comment on regulations. If Northwest Biosolids didn’t have funding for research, it would have been much harder to have an effective communication strategy. Every bit of information that goes out of Northwest Biosolids is rooted in research. Whether talking to utilities or to their community members, we need to deliver research-vetted information in such a way that everybody can understand it.

What words of inspiration would you offer to those on the front lines of sustainable biosolids programs?

Lono-Batura: What utilities are doing as front-line workers is such an important job. I want my kids, when they flush, to realize that someone is there waiting for it, to make it into resources again. It’s amazing as a utility team member to be able to say, “That’s me bringing clean water to you. That’s me taking the nutrients you ate and making them into biosolids to put back to the farms that will feed you again.” It’s pretty incredible.   



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