Beyond the Recycle Bin

October NERC Newsletter

by Maggie Finn

In the back of the kitchen, the garage, the basement, or the mudroom, most of us have our sorting bins.  Somehow, as we become more progressive in our recycling, our bins become more interesting.  In my pantry, my recycling bins fit my way of thinking.  There is compost, glass, metal, plastic, and paper.  This variety could make me a little smug, but they are also a reflection of how far my little New England town has come in their way of thinking about what was formerly thought of as waste. 

How does something go from being a waste to a resource?  For me it was a process of awareness.  Now it is a “no-brainer” that metal is valuable and can be used again or that old plastic bottle can become a fleece coat.  It is part of our everyday lives now, this understanding that we can’t just use resources – we must steward them.   As we become more environmentally savvy as individuals, our neighbors and our town stewards, either lead or follow suit.  We do our best where our collective level of understanding currently stands and our sorting bins expand accordingly. 

After putting a solar hot water heater on my home, the next level for me was to think of my home as a system.  All things going in and all things going out came under scrutiny.   Because of this, packaging was reduced, lawn clippings went to compost, and there were many other minor changes that I hoped would make a big difference in my own stewardship of resources.   But there was one thing that entirely escaped my system approach to living.  It was just so out of sight and out of mind that it never even occurred to me to recycle there, and yet it was a big part of my system.

The stuff we flush.  The yuck factor aside, it is part of our homes and our systems, but is it something we can do anything about?  Although, we tend to not think about what happens to this “other food waste”, it has to be dealt with somehow.  I am responsible about all the other systems in my home, why not this one?   Wastewater solids are called sludge, but once treated and tested at a Water Resource Recovery Facility sludge becomes biosolids.   I had never really thought about it much, but I do now.

Every home has expenses, and every town does as well.   If a town has a water resource recovery facility (formerly known as a “wastewater treatment plant”), getting rid of the biosolids can be one of the largest expenses for both the facility and the town.  We can be good stewards here as well.  There are currently three choices of what to do with this used food waste:  landfill it, incinerate it, or land apply it.  Each has its own pros and cons, but landfilling is rarely a good use of resources.

We compost our kitchen scraps, lawn trimmings, and other organics.  Why shouldn’t used food waste – biosolids – get the same kind of attention?  It is rich in nutrients and energy and is a valuable resource.  It took awhile for us to get on board with other wastes being resources, and it might take a while to overcome the yuck factor and see biosolids as having value as well.  This has been happening, steadily over the past few decades.  Today, many communities, large and small, are land applying or composting biosolids in an environmentally and fiscally responsible way.  More than half of the wastewater solids produced in the U. S. are recycled to soils.  At many treatment plants residents line up in the spring to purchase well-treated and safe compost or pelletized biosolids products to use on their own gardens with spectacular results.   In some areas, the demand for the bulk products useful to farmers are in such demand that there are waiting lists.  Recently a progressive water resource recovery facility superintendent told me that, while giving a tour to a school group, one little girl remarked, “So you sell people back their own poop?”  The answer is YES – and that really is full circle, system thinking, beyond the recycling bins.

What can we do when it comes to biosolids recycling?  Start by finding out where your own local biosolids go.  Even if you have a septic system and leach field in your yard, when the residuals are pumped they go somewhere.  What does your town do with their biosolids?  My thinking on organic residuals and biosolids evolved in the time I have worked at NEBRA.  Although, I have always considered myself environmentally minded and worked in the environmental field, biosolids recycling was a little harder for me to embrace.  NEBRA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the environmentally sound and publicly supported recycling of biosolids and other residuals in New England and Eastern Canada.  We provide information, training and leadership on the best practices for use of these former waste products as fertilizers, soil amendments and energy sources.  My waste-to-resource thinking now embraces biosolids as worthy of recycling.  You may not want biosolids in your sorting bins, but you can include them in as one of your recyclables!.