Sally Brown

September 15, 2016 | General

Connections: Watch Your Language

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle September 2016

There is a particular “aha” moment I remember very well. I was driving home from work with my toddler son in the back seat, cursing the driver in front of me like the Brooklyn driver I was raised to be. Max started mimicking his mommy. In one adorable rendition of a completely inappropriate expression for a 14 month old, my trash talking and driving came to a complete stop for 17 years.
I was reminded of this aha moment recently while giving a green infrastructure talk about rain garden soils and how they filter contaminants from storm water. “Contaminants” are what we have called the compounds dissolved in, and solids carried by, the storm water. They are mostly nutrients and soil particles, and are filtered out by the rain garden soils.
Because we have called them “contaminants,” people think that the rain garden soils get “contaminated” while doing their job of filtering. Now these people were all afraid to touch these soils because as we all know “contaminants” are contaminated as in you get the cooties and your finger falls off if you touch them. I asked the audience which of these “contaminants” were of most concern. In addition to ones with some scientific basis (e.g., possible pathogens), the audience was very concerned about nitrogen, phosphorus, copper and zinc.
They knew of these as “contaminants” and with that term came a range of warning signs — to the point where they were afraid to plant anything in these soils or to touch them. The thought of growing food was clearly out of the question. However, these same “contaminants” when in water are required nutrients for soils. If you have ever tried to grow plants or taken a soil science class, you would refer to those as necessary plant and animal nutrients and not contaminants. You would be grateful for them and certainly not afraid of them.
This class was not an isolated example. I was recently asked by a second group if it was safe to touch bioretention soils without gloves. They sent me the analysis for the soils and seemed disappointed that they were unremarkable. The analysis did not show any elevated metal levels, nor did it reveal any monsters hiding in between the clay particles.
This use of frightening terminology to explain environmental treatment systems is not restricted to green storm water infrastructure. The same thing happens repeatedly with wastewater discharges. I have heard numerous engineers and consultants explain the wastewater treatment is needed because direct discharge poisons the oceans. Wastewater treatment removes the “poisons” in wastewater, preventing them from entering our waters. People are then suspicious of biosolids as they contain these “poisons” removed from the water prior to discharge.
Point of Fact: These so-called “poisons” that we want to keep out of freshwater systems consist primarily of nutrients and carbon compounds — both critical to the health of soils. But that is not clear based on our language. How can we go from saying something is a public health hazard and a poison to saying that it is not only safe but good for people and the planet?

Changing It Up

Two options are using different terminology or branding to distinguish the products from the feedstocks. But keep in mind that there is a big difference between what is healthy for soils and what is healthy for waters. We have consistently used terminology to encourage acceptance of types of systems such as bioretention soils and wastewater treatment, saying that these systems are filtering wastes, contaminants, or poisons. The general public understands that those terms mean that we are taking bad things out of the water. They don’t get that those same bad things for water are generally great things for soils. Using catchall phrases like wastewater treatment sets us up for public acceptance challenges at the other end. People listen when we call things hazardous or poisonous. We can’t then be surprised when they use the same terms right back at us. They are good learners — just like my son.
Therefore we have to figure out a way to communicate with a little more nuance and less flair for the dramatic. For example, instead of referring to the contaminants in storm water as contaminants, it might work to use a visual, e.g., a glass of clear water and a glass of muddy water. Which would you prefer to swim in? Keep the soil on the land and out of the water. If this were the message for these systems there is a high potential that people with rain gardens would be more comfortable touching the soils and even planting plants in them. That is a very simple message but it makes the point clearly. It is a way to continue without the details but also without the judgment.
We can also stop the language before it gets started. Josh Marx, who is with the King County (WA) Solid Waste program, told me years ago to stop calling food waste “waste.” He reasoned that people throw out waste because it is garbage. Call excess food that you no longer want in your refrigerator “food scraps.” Scraps are different from waste as the implication is that they can be eaten, if not by you, than by some other creature (including composting microbes). Food scraps have value whereas food waste does not. People may be more likely to make the effort to compost something that has value rather than something that is garbage. I have been working on that ever since.
Dispose is another word that is used way too often, particularly by biosolids program managers. I cringe every time I hear the “D” word. Why would someone want to use what you want to dispose of? I don’t “dispose” of clothes when I bring them to the Goodwill. I just admit that my days of size 8 are gone or that my opportunities to wear sequins are few and far between. The same is true for biosolids. There is a limit on how much biosolids can be used for landscaping within the treatment plant. The rest needs to be shared with all of those good people who helped to produce them. Instead of “disposing” of biosolids, you need to market them.
One excellent way to accomplish that is by branding. Instead of letting others call your product toxic sludge that is produced by municipalities and industries, you make “Bloom,” which is both good for the soil and the planet. Nowhere does DC Water — the manufacturer of Bloom — suggest its product be put into oceans or rivers, where the high organic matter and nutrients would wreak havoc. They are saying to put it on dirt so you can build soil. King County, Washington’s LOOP biosolids — “turn you dirt around” — has multiple videos that explain what a gift it is for other people to treat our wastes to make them safe so that we can use them and close the LOOP, returning carbon and nutrients to soils.
So watch your language both in your car and at your office. If you want people to value your products and help contribute to their production, start with carefully chosen words that encourage behavior and communicate clearly. You won’t be the first — just take a look at “pre-owned” luxury cars to see what a change in language can do for a change in value. If people had a universal disdain for what is “waste” to them, ebay would not be trading for over $30 a share.
Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.

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