Tell us about your experiences with Marketplace. Enter To Win

It’s a fertile market for recycled human waste

Adriene Hill Aug 3, 2010

It’s a fertile market for recycled human waste

Adriene Hill Aug 3, 2010


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

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

Hill: Thanks.

Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.