December 22, 2008 | General

Rebuilding Trust

BioCycle December 2008, Vol. 49, No. 12, p. 20
Climate Change Connections
Sally Brown

ABOUT a year ago, I wrote in this column about an encounter I had with an environmental activist at the supermarket I frequent. My excursions to the Ballard Market in Seattle once again are providing meat for this column (and not just my dinner table). There is a woman who sells our local “homeless newspaper” outside the market. I always buy the newspaper and often chat with her. One particular day I noticed she had a liter bottle of designer water. I assumed she just used that bottle instead of the standard Nalgene now turned aluminum bottle (because of concerns about Bisphenol A in the plastic bottles) that are ubiquitous here in Seattle.
Turns out I was wrong. She only drinks designer water. Selling the homeless newspaper and drinking designer water – this seemed a little out of whack to me. She explained that the water from the tap is just an epidemic waiting to happen. She read a book about this and knew that this book, rather than the public water authority, was the word of truth.
I tried to explain that actually, the water from the tap had a lower chance of being contaminated than the bottled water. The water from the tap is highly regulated and monitored whereas there are no standards or regulations for the water in the bottle – just better packaging. The U.S. has some of the best and safest public water in the world. No one in this extensive public system wants people to get sick. In fact, they take great pride in keeping the people and the environment healthy.
She didn’t buy any of what I was saying. So these days I just quickly buy the paper and avoid the conversation. Granted, there may be a wide range of factors that have fostered this woman’s deep-seated mistrust. However, I see this type of mistrust of government and environmental regulations all over.
Biosolids provides a classic example of this mistrust, with new stories every day of the week if you want to listen. In a recent email from an antibiosolids activist, I was once again reminded of not only the “toxic metals,” but “tens of thousands of industrial man-made chemical organic compounds, many of which are toxic and persistent, most of which have not undergone even basic toxicity tests.” This is all part of a government conspiracy if you listen to this activist.
She continued: “I am saying this because many people do not realize that deaths and hundreds of serious illnesses have been linked to sludge-exposure. They don’t realize this because the EPA has for 15 years funded a well-organized PR campaign claiming the practice is safe and sustainable.”
Now, my dealings with EPA, particularly the last eight years, have shown more than anything a lack of money and a continued frustration that they can’t do more to clean up the environment. I have never met with anyone at any government agency whose intention is to make things worse and make people’s lives more dangerous. Mostly everyone I’ve met wants to make the world a better place. They too drink the water and take out the trash and even flush the toilet. Despite this, over the last several decades we have seen a growing mistrust in government and its intentions.
The vast majority of people have no real idea where their garbage goes, where their water comes from or what makes up biosolids. We had company this weekend, a lovely woman, who asked where the garbage was so she could throw away her teabag. We told her the tea bag could be composted and to just put it in the green bin. A discussion followed on what goes in the compost bin. She was shocked that banana peels could be composted. This is a woman who can speak with obvious intelligence about her views on the prospects for a Big Three bailout in Detroit and yet she knows nothing about her own trash. While the impact of a bankrupt auto industry can pain us for a decade, ignorance about our own waste can bankrupt us for our future.
One easy way for government agencies to reestablish trust is to let the general public know who you are and what you do. A next step is to let the general public know that their actions have a direct and immediate impact on how well you can do your job – and how they can help you to do it better!
What I would like to see is more education and more public awareness. That way if you hear about those tens of millions of toxic organic chemicals in sludge, you’ll realize that maybe what that lady is talking about is your shampoo and medicines instead of the Dark Lord of Mordor or the boogie man. Maybe you’ll realize that there are some things that you shouldn’t put down the drain. Maybe you’ll even realize that those biosolids do wonders for growing vegetables and that they should be thought of as an asset rather than a hazard.
One group I work with is setting up a beneficial use of reclaimed water program here in King County. This summer, I had a graduate student testing for environmental hazards in lettuce grown using the reclaimed water. As there were no pathogens or metals in the reclaimed water, I have to admit that I wasn’t too shocked when they weren’t there in the lettuce either.
The point is that the reclaimed water program is working hard to assure the public that what they are doing is safe and beneficial. If all agencies had a part of their budget set aside for public outreach, letting people know who they are and what they do – and how we can help them do their jobs more effectively – that would be a big step. And that nice lady in front of the Ballard Market could put her water money towards a new winter coat.
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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