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Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

July 12, 2016

Here’s a guest blog offering by Dr. Sally Brown, University of Washington.

The (Northwest Biosolids Management Association) library came in at the last minute this month because I am just getting back and settled from our annual regional Biofest conference.  It was a great meeting this year, with a wide variety of speakers.  We heard about the critical link between soils and civilization from David Montgomery – author of Dirt: the Erosion of Civilization – and about types of haul trucks from Tony Chiras, haul manager for King County biosolids.  We heard about actual improvement in California, expansion of local use in Chicago, and how Tacoma sold out of product for over a month.  

All of this confirming the benefits and critical nature of what we do. Perhaps the most powerful session was the Walk the Talk session where speakers included our Washington State Regulator, a scientist (me), the lead of Sylvis, a land application firm from British Columbia, and a program manager from Oregon.  The common thread across all of these presentations was that program managers need to ‘own’ their programs – take pride in their work and their product and brag about this far and wide in order for regulators, scientists and consultants to work with them.  

This was all the more powerful and pertinent because of the biosolids disaster currently taking place in British Columbia. A low-bid contract to a composting operation that was trying to fly under the radar, in combination with regulations that are strict in terms of contaminants but silent in terms of public outreach requirements, mixed with a history of silence and lack of public engagement by the majority of generators in the province, has resulted in a veritable ‘shit storm’. 

As a result of this crisis, the Ministers in British Columbia have recently met and recommended that all biosolids be pyrolized instead of directly land applied.  If you haven't been following this situation, have a glance at the website set up to oppose biosolids in BC.  This library is my attempt to provide tools to address this type of crisis and hopefully to prevent it from occurring again.

The first article is a summary of risks and benefits associated with land application written awhile back by a Canadian.  The author presents a well-balanced summary of the risks and benefits. His concluding paragraph is presented in the library.  This is a fast and easy read and shows that not everyone north of the border is convinced that beneficial use of biosolids will lead to the end of civilization as we know it.  It also suggests that outreach and communication can go a long way. 

As demonstrated in BC: A lack of loud, proud outreach and communication there has allowed the issue of biosolids use in BC to slip into the realm of risk and fear.  The second article in the library is all about our current culture of fear and how that culture leads people to do things that actually increase rather than decrease their risks.  The authors use the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers as a means to frame this.  They provide an excellent and helpful discussion that includes examples of how risk perception and fear take hold and steps and communication tools that acknowledge risk but attempt to combat irrational fears.  

From this we get more specific to biosolids, first focusing on how the media has covered biosolids.  The authors focus on three states (CA, FL and VA) over a 10-year period.  They picked these states because of high levels of controversy over land application programs.  Negative press outnumbered positive press by about 3:1.  This starts with how biosolids are defined – loosely and typically with a negative context.  They also provide data on who is interviewed and how the issues are framed.  They note that environmental considerations and quotes from individuals are less common in the press and provide potential tools for how to provide positive press coverage.  This can start with clearer definitions, and one way to do this is to market your product effectively to end users and stakeholders.

The last two articles focus on marketing.  The first is a survey of vegetable growers in New Jersey on whether they would use biosolids.  The answer is generally ‘no’, but the rationale and reasons provided may be surprising.  Most are concerned not about the environment or risk, although there is a discussion of metals, but rather about marketing their products.  In order to have biosolids used beneficially, you have to figure out who will use them and why.  You need a market base.  This base can then become your publicity. 

That is brought home by the last article, actually a chapter in a dissertation.  Kristen McIvor got her PhD with me in 2011 and now runs the community garden program in Tacoma, WA.  She surveyed gardeners in Seattle and Tacoma as well as plotted who got biosolids-based products in each region and how much.  She found that with a product available and accessible to the gardening public, awareness and support of biosolids increased.  Without that, there was general ignorance of biosolids.  The maps tell the whole story here.  In other words, people do not have to start out facing biosolids with the lens of fear and risk. 

In a vacuum however, this is the lens that we typically use.  Talking about, showing and owning a product or a program can be effective tools and might be essential to success.  Not everyone has to use or like your product – they just have to realize that they don’t have to waste time and energy worrying about it.  If you can accomplish this, the benefits of the biosolids will find enough loyal customers for you.

By Sally Brown, University of Washington

This article first appeared in Northwest Biosolids Management Association’s October 2015 Biosolids eBulletin. It is reprinted with permission.

NERC welcomes Guest Blog submissions. To inquire about submitting articles contact Athena Lee Bradley, Projects Manager at athena(at) Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

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