June 21, 2010 | General

Climate Change Connections: Biosolids Media Campaign

BioCycle June 2010, Vol. 51, No. 6, p. 35
Sally Brown

In general, I am very passionate about beneficial use of organics and the wonders that these organics can do for soils. This passion, however, does not extend to dog excrement. I have to confess that when I take my Sadie out each day for her one hour constitutional, I make sure to have at least four plastic bags just in case. She usually goes through two or three of them. I used to drive her up to the park by the lake to walk because they have garbage cans every 100 feet or so to dispose the plastic bags.
I realized that it is stupid to drive the car to walk the dog on a regular basis and so now we walk mostly in the neighborhood around the house. This has ended up putting me on high alert for much of each walk looking for places where I can put these filled plastic bags. I would be very happy to know that these filled bags went somewhere other than a landfill, but the most important thing for me is finding some home, albeit suboptimal, so I don’t end up carrying around the bags for an hour.
I have come to accept this weakness in my character and usually don’t even think twice about it. So why can’t I accept it when municipalities with fabulous composting programs for their food waste and yard trimmings talk about burning their biosolids? There are ads all around where I live about saving the rotten apple and not a peep about biosolids. Maybe biosolids is for them what dog poop is for me. Maybe I should just open my heart and let them be. But I just can’t do it. Biosolids are what got me into this business; they are my first love. And I’ve also seen what they can do for my plants in my garden as well as plants on farms and plants on Superfund sites.


They are also the most studied and regulated organic soil amendment out there. Sure, they can look pretty disgusting and they don’t always smell too good. But you can fix that. Compost them, mix them with some sand and sawdust, and you have a product you can show off.
They also have some opponents who have apparently not heard of Facebook. Maybe if they got accounts on Facebook, they would have something else to do besides attempting to stir up opposition to land application of biosolids. Problem is, these opponents are normally the only voices in a vacuum. The same cities with the beautiful ads, web pages and brochures about their composts have not said a word about their biosolids.
When beneficial land application of biosolids started, many of these cities got slammed by public opposition. There were some not very good decisions made about how to best use these materials. Decisions like talking about disposing of biosolids rather than using them. These are problems that persist to this day.
And since that first go around, many of these cities strictly adhere to the “Silence is Golden” school of marketing. The thing with biosolids is that the PR campaign has often been left to the engineers who run the treatment plants or the municipal employees that fill out the permits. Do you think for a second that any respectable company would leave their marketing to the accountant?


So instead of talking a lot more, for this column I’ve come up with some suggestions on how to market your biosolids. I would encourage you to try these. The more people you get to try biosolids, the more customers you will have and the more those vocal opponents will hear their voices echo in the wind.
There are several approaches to this campaign. The traditional approach for biosolids program managers has been to start out by talking about how safe biosolids are. Not ideal for me. But many biosolids managers are obsessed with contaminants. If you want to start with contaminants (against my better advice) you could do something like Figure 1.
What I would suggest as another approach would be to develop a sense of ownership. An ad something like Figure 2.
But I believe the best approach is to talk about how great your stuff is and what it can do. Figure 3 features some campaigns to get you started.
Now I bet this has made you smile, and I would guess that if you showed these to some other people, they might smile as well. You never know, they might even try some of these biosolids. And once you try them, you never go back to that old NPK (Figure 4).

Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and authors this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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