When Talking Biosolids, Don't Dodge the Criticisms, But Be Sure to Accentuate the Positives

How do you approach communication about your beneficial use program? Apologizing for potential negatives? Or proudly proclaiming the benefits?

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Biosolids recycling has always existed under a cloud. Some people have concerns about odor. Heavy metals. Pathogens.

Then there are the mischaracterizations of the product as “treated human waste,” or worse, that often appear in the news media. And now we have the specter of PFAS and the fear that our farmland and landscapes are being despoiled with “forever chemicals.”

Put it all together and it’s enough to force clean-water agencies with beneficial use programs into a defensive crouch. There are so many accusations and innuendos flying that it’s tempting to slip on a figurative Kevlar vest and gird for the attacks.

But playing defense, or “playing not to lose,” has never been a productive strategy. It’s sort of like promoting a product by saying, “Gee, it’s really not so bad.” It’s allowing the concerned and the misinformed to set the agenda for discussion.

Counting benefits

The concerns, of course, have to be acknowledged and addressed. Avoiding them, trying to sweep them under the rug, is a sure way to destroy credibility. But it’s unwise to lead off by explaining away negatives, especially when there are so many positives to talk about.

And those positives go beyond the presence of nutrients that help stimulate crop and plant growth and that save users money they would otherwise spend on commercial fertilizers. According to the Water Environment Federation, “The body of research documenting the comprehensive benefits from biosolids use — from improved ecosystem servicing to soil health and carbon sequestration — is growing.”

Biosolids have the major advantage of containing significant organic matter. This strikes close to home because last fall a landscaper advised me to consider applying Milorganite fertilizer (a Milwaukee biosolids product) to an area of my property that gets baked dry by the sun and where grass and wildflowers plants therefore have trouble growing.

The organic matter helps the soil hold more water and could help rejuvenate an area that has been somewhat barren for a long time.

Meanwhile, agriculture agencies are starting to emphasize the role organic matter plays in soil health and greenhouse gas mitigation. That can only bode well for biosolids, whether Class B products for cropland or Class A pelletized material or compost for golf courses, parks and residential lawns and ornamental gardens.

Staying positive

Perhaps the easiest way to put biosolids in a deservedly positive light is to emphasize recycling. It’s a concept people readily understand and tend to view favorably. Most people recycle daily — their aluminum cans, glass bottles, plastics, paper, cardboard.

From there it’s not a long stretch to talk about recycling as it applies to wastewater: how treatment plants turn the raw material of sewage into clean water, a rich source of plant nutrition and soil restoration and, in many cases, a renewable fuel (biogas).

The trick, despite all the negativity that can surround biosolids, is to promote the product with enthusiasm. I recall a sales training session during which the leader suggested remembering the last four letters of that word: IASM. As in: I Am Sold Myself. You have to believe in what you are selling in order to be effective.

In an important sense, if your agency markets biosolids in any form, you are in the sales business. If you believe in your product and it shows, you’ll have a much easier time getting your publics to go along.

As the sports cliché goes, the best defense is a good offense. The concerns about biosolids will always be there; they aren’t that hard to explain. PFAS? We cook on it. We wear it. It’s in our furniture and carpet. We dress our babies in it. It’s all over our households. Why would we think tiny quantities in the soil from biosolids are a major health concern?

Anyway, the simple truth is you’ve got a great product. Don’t be afraid to talk it up.   


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