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It's a fertile market for recycled human waste

Milorganite pellets are made from recycled waste, a.k.a. biosolids, and used to help fertilize crops and improve land

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Bill Radke: A project to turn human waste into fertilizer pellets has run into opposition. Not because of the ick factor, but because of cost. The Chicago project has been in the works since 2000, and it's just started churning out the pellets for commercial use. Marketplace's Sustainability reporter Adriene Hill did a little sniffing around and joins me now in the studio. Good morning.

Adriene Hill: Good morning.

Radke: Did I just say that Chicago is recycling human waste?

Hill: You did, and you're right. Chicago's not alone; lots of municipalities all over the country, all over the world actually, recycle human and industrial waste heavily treated into little pellets that are fertilizer.

Radke: Well I'm glad they're heavily treating it, but even so, is it safe?

Hill: The EPA regulates this whole market and it's called biosolids. And basically the EPA has set limits for the amount and type of pathogens and chemicals that can be in any of this material that's put on the land. We are talking about some serious stuff here, like Arsenic, Lead, Mercury. But municipalities need a place to put all this sludge -- in the past, they would just dump it out into oceans and lakes. So recycling it is preferable.

Radke: And there's somebody to buy it? There's a market for sludge pellets?

Hill: You mean you don't 'em in your lawn?

Radke: Actually, I do use a lot of worm poop in my garden.

Hill: Yeah, so maybe this is for you! It turns out there is a big market for this stuff. Milwaukee has been making these pellets since the 20s, you can actually go buy them at the Home Depot. And the Chicago plant, the owners are making six semi-trucks full of these pellets every day. They say they're selling all of them for agricultural use. Golf courses love this stuff, sod farms, anyone who wants a lawn is really interesting in this.

Radke: OK. So there is a market for sludge pellets. But why has the Chicago factory taken some heat in the press lately?

Hill: Well the Chicago factory took years and years to get up and running. The operating costs for this facility are also about 40 percent higher than the city guessed when it sort of made this contract years ago; that's according to the Chicago Tribune. I talked to the company about why that was, they say it's all energy costs, it's all out of their hands. That means taxpayers are on the hook for more than they anticipated. You know I hate to say this so early in the morning, but the history of sewage treatment and the way this piece of it fits in is fascinating, and I've put some reading up on our website at marketplace.org

Radke: I think we can take it. Marketplace's Adriene Hill. Thanks.

Hill: Thanks.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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Mike, Did you read the study? I will admit that the soybean crop will pick up 2 chemicals and transport them to the bean and I was wrong about that. However, in the treatments where the beans accumulated the most were from treated water and "2−3 orders of magnitudes higher than typical concentration found in reclaimed water" Also, I liked the part about "biosolids application resulting in higher plant concentrations, likely due to higher loading". Nice, so if I dump out 5 tons on a small plot, the plant might take some up. It doesn't sound like sound science to me. Bio sludge has a maximum limit determined by the state of how much you ca put down on the ground over a number of years. Also, they require buffer strips of 50 between any streams and waterways, so the threat of runoff is minute.

@I JPM. Sorry, your provocative statements piqued my ire, so I have to respond by saying, "you are wrong". You "suggest the commentors read more about them. Plants have grown in many toxic locations and have not picked up 1 toxic molecule." To Quote Mr. Stalberg, "Through this treated waste, an array of pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) make their way unregulated from consumers' homes into farm fields. Now researchers find that at least one crop, soybeans, can readily absorb these chemicals: Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es1011115 http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news/88/i32/8832news.html" Mike Holland

Correction from my last post: Many (if not most) of the commercial farmers who use municipal sludge grow feed crops for their animals. And: They're also feeding those animals antibiotics which sets the stage for antibiotic resistance due to the residuals in the food from the sludge.

JPM wrote: "Most of the products are not being used for fresh market or human consumption and most are not being used for leafy greens."

Those are the kind of data-less statements that have gotten us into this mess. Home gardeners are using lots of Milorganite on their vegetable gardens. That fact can be backed up by sales receipts. In the case of commercial farmers, many (if not most) use municipal sludge to grow feed crops for their animals. They're also feeding those animals antibiotics that are becoming more resistant to the antibiotics due to the residuals in the food from the sludge. Then there's all the run off into surface waters as well as the transport through ground water.

We live in a world comprised of systems. Those systems interact. If we damage one system, we will see ripple effects.

Sewage sludge is tested for only 9 heavy metals out of a myriad number which could be in sewage sludge. Also, it is not tested for thousands of chemicals present in household cleaning products, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, radio active materials secreted by chemo therapy patients or directly from hospitals, industrial chemicals, petro chemicals from stormwater runoff, etc. etc. etc.
Officials don't know what's in sewage sludge because it is only lightly regulated. To sell it to the general public without disclaimers is highly irresponsible. To report this story without looking deeper into the issue is also irresponsible!

-Melissa

I would like you to produce information on how pharmaceuticals are able to move from the xylem to the parenchyma cells of a fruit strictly from soil uptake. Most of the products are not being used for fresh market or human consumption and most are not being used for leafy greens.

For Michael Bullard from NC:

I totally concur with your concerns with the costs and non-sustainability of our present methods of managing our excrement, but when you just begin to comprehend the imponderable content of what is in "modern" sewage and its imponderable, negative impact on life on this planet the $dollar cost pales to insignificance. We have to completely re-think the way we manage our bodily "by-products". Ellen Bell from Altoona, IA is on the right track when she talks about the non-sewage discharge, composting toilets. We have had 30+ years of personal/ professional experiences with these devices and they appear to be the only sane, non-polluting and sustainable answer on the horizon.

Al White
Millerton, PA

Forgot to mention that, as an analytical chemist with experience in the biopharmaceutical industry, the pharmaceuticals that we are flushing through our bodies and down the toilets are absolutely getting onto our agricultural land and contaminating our food and our wildlife. This certainly aides in bacterial resistance among other things -- especially when it accumulates in our bodies ... it's like unknowingly taking prescription drugs that may have detrimental effects in their own right, and/or that may interact dangerously with other such products/byproducts ingested or taken voluntarily... very dangerous.

Forgot to mention that, as an analytical chemist with experience in the biopharmaceutical industry, the pharmaceuticals that we are flushing through our bodies and down the toilets are absolutely getting onto our agricultural land and contaminating our food and our wildlife. This certainly aides in bacterial resistance among other things -- especially when it accumulates in our bodies ... it's like unknowingly taking prescription drugs that may have detrimental effects in their own right, and/or that may interact dangerously with other such products/byproducts ingested or taken voluntarily... very dangerous.

You all only have one side of the story here. We (i.e. the EPA) knows comparatively little about the components and the effects of sludge application on agricultural land, and animals and humans that live on or near this land are already showing very scary side-effects. I challenge you (and implore you) to invite someone from the opposing side of this coin to be on your show to balance the tables.

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