I was reminded of this toilet training book recently when BioCycle editor Rhodes Yepsen told us that the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) announced it was starting a major campaign against “toxic sludge.” According to OCA’s website, “OCA will be educating and mobilizing its national network and calling on federal and state governments to classify sewage sludge as hazardous waste, to ban its application on farms and ranches, and stop allowing sludge companies to market it as ‘organic’ fertilizer. As an alternative to sewage sludge and polluting and climate destabilizing chemical fertilizers, OCA is determined to make safe, productive, greenhouse gas-sequestering organic composting the norm in U.S. and global agriculture and gardening, and not simply the green alternative.”
Bummer! I think most BioCycle readers could get behind OCA’s determination of making “safe, productive, greenhouse gas-sequestering organic composting the norm.” I would also venture to say that most of us wouldn’t want to see sludge categorized as a hazardous waste. Years of industrial pretreatment and pollution prevention have significantly reduced metals concentrations. The most pervasive problem today — and it’s not just with sludge but with any end product resulting from people flushing the toilet and taking showers — are contaminants contained in personal care products and pharmaceuticals. It’s important to note that we — consumers at large — willingly use antimicrobial soaps, take medicines, shampoo our hair, and yes, flush the toilet. No one is forcing us to do all these things. And chances are, very few people give any of this a second thought.
After reading the OCA announcement, I emailed the “info@” address to ask what alternative they support for sewage sludge management. I received the following, polite response: “We will soon have more information posted on this issue, you can subscribe to our newsletter and check back on the webpage for updates on this subject.” The more we thought and talked about “anti” campaigns like this, the more logical it became to ask, “well then, what are you for?” If you are against recycling sludge, are you for landfill disposal or incineration?
Organizations like OCA, Sierra Club and the Center For Food Safety (the latter two are very vocal with their anti-sludge positions) serve critically important roles in identifying problems, pointing out how horrifying they are for the environment and humans, and then providing a simple solution — usually that the problem doesn’t have to exist in the first place. For better or worse, the problem of sewage sludge won’t go away.
Too often, the first reaction to an anti-sludge campaign is that the risk of current practices needs to be reevaluated. Revisiting the risk debate is no fun. It just gets nasty and is not productive. That is not to say specific risks should not be studied, with appropriate rules and regulations adopted to address them. But the reality is that everyone poops. The simplest solution is to go back up the pipe to where the problem starts. This was done very successfully with industrial contaminants. Ultimately, we need to do the same with consumer contaminants. How? By outreach and education, and campaigns against use of compounds such as phthalates and triclosan for which there are alternatives. Now that sounds like something many people would be for, including OCA. — N.G.