Other People’s Poo: Biosolids in the Garden

It’s people!

Why not use city compost in your garden? Ecological designer Darren Butler, at a class I was sitting in on, showed a soil report from a site that had used compost from the city of Los Angeles. LA’s compost contain biosolids, a euphemism for sewage. The soil test showed high levels of:

  • zinc 196 ppm
  • copper 76 ppm
  • sulfur 5,752 ppm

The problem isn’t human waste, it’s all the other stuff that ends up in the sewer. I see a future when we’ll be responsibly composting human waste (see Joseph Jenkin’s website for how to do that). But watch out for that free city compost.

Update: A blog reader, Helane Shields, left an interesting series of links about biosolids in the comments. Thanks Helane!

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  1. Great post! More people need to be aware of humanure compost and how we can give back to the soil rather than the sewage system. We compost our manure at home, thanks to learning a little from the book The Humanure Handbook written by Joseph Jenkins.

  2. http://holycrapthefilm.com/watchfilm/

    Big scale humanuring was applied in Haiti w/ great results, I’m sure we can do this.

    I live in an apt. and would gladly do the Jenkins Humanure system if some enterprising urban homesteader was willing to pick up my weekly poop.

    I’d pay for this service and involvement to the land.

    I’ve already cut back on my electricity using 2 solar panels and have limited my water intake, every time I flush it just kills me inside.

    I have a couple of large tubs for my vegetables in my balcony using greywater and doing pretty well urban homesteading within the confines of a tenament like setting.

    Is there anyone picking up poop as a business model to satisfy those who want to do Humanuring in apartments?

  3. City of San Francisco is still in hot water over biosolid giveaways. The stuff they were handing to residents was high in all kinds of stuff that doesn’t belong in vegetable gardens. And it didn’t look like compost, much less organic material.

    Speaking of composted organic waste, from a city (not biosolids, but yard debris and food scraps), it is a huge stretch to use such compost from a city, in one’s garden (this is just IMHO; people really vary in opinion on this one), because there’s a distinctive lack of quality control over what goes into residents’ organics carts. Other cities contract with their organics composters to get some of the stuff back, actually. City of Berkeley does this, and Oakland might also. But the stuff from these giveaways is full of small plastic particles, and the fact that paper milk cartons get composted with the other organics is also a vector of contamination. The standard tetra pak milk carton is 85% paper and 15% plastic, and that 15% does not include the cute plastic pouring spot nor its screw-cap. The 15% accounts for the moisture barrier, inside and out. Ask the tetra pak people about the pouring spouts and they’ll tell you the plastic is ‘recyclable’, but I’ve yet to find a program which actually downcycles that plastic into something useful (this is where plastic reprocessing gets downright cloak and dagger, on top of it being a carbon footprint issue thanks to bottles going to China for reprocessing, rather than being downcycled domestically.)

    This is sort of unrelated, but the last few bags of garden soil I got from Home Despot (the ones beefed up with “compost”) were full of all manner of plastic bits and pieces. Plastic spork fragments, drinking straw fragments, plastic swizzle stick pieces. The plastic really pissed me off because it’s something I don’t want my backyard hens eating. I mailed an envelope of it to Kellogg, the guys who produce these planting mixes, and never got a response. The cold comfort is at least I have an inkling where they get the so-called “compost” that goes into their soil and mulch mixes.

    We’re going to wave our flush toilets goodbye in 2012, and get more into humanuring. We’re working on composting our cats’ leavings, so now it’s our turn to use more than urine as a fertilizing resource.

    Didn’t mean to go on about the plastic thing, but until a few months ago I worked for a municipal recycling program in No. CA, and there’s a lot of conflicting info on how efficacious the organics composting programs actually are. Plastic downcycling is one of the huge lies of recycling in general, too. And consumers in general really don’t give a rat’s patootie about this as long as they assume they can put their wasteful plastic packaging into their recycling carts and not think about it.

  4. A lot of people don’t think about what exactly is in biosolids. Yeah, it’s poo, but it’s also all the drugs (legal and not) that they take, the chemicals that they eat, heavy metals, etc. No thanks!

  5. From coast to coast, sewage facilities are finding there is little or no market for Class A sludge biosolids. http://www.sludgevictims.com/nomarketforclassasludge.html

    Fortuna, California, now gives away its class A sludge compost for free. However, Fortuna requires that residents taking the sludge biosolids sign a liability waiver indemnifying
    the sludge plant from the costs of any sludge problems:

    The EPA and waste industry recommend the use of Class A sludge on home
    vegetable gardens. But scientists report vegetables and plants uptake
    sludge pathogens and pollutants:

    In recent years, Milwaukee’s Classd A sludge, Milorganite, has been contaminated with toxic levels of PCBs and lead.

    Many people have been sickened and harmed from exposure to Class A sludge biosolids:

    Respectfully submitted, Helane Shields, Alton,, NH [email protected]

  6. I only trust my own compost, and from past information and experience, I would NOT endorse the use of human waste or other carnivore based compost. You never know the source or what could be in the compost(herbacide, pesticide, etc)

  7. There is a huge difference between humanure and biosolids, which is not just poo but a complex mixture of human and industrial waste. Every month every entity connected to a sewer system I hospitals, funeral homes, chemical companies, metal plating shops) is permitted to discharge 33 pounds of hazardous waste into waste water treatment plants. Here the pollutants are REMOVED and CONCENTRATE in the resulting biosolids. Treating sludge also produces robust antibiotic resistant pathogens. Those who profit from biosolids deceive the public and the media by falsely equating humanure with biosolids. People and animals exposed to sludge have become seriously ill. We should not be using toxics-containing material to grow our food. For more information about the risks of using this complex contaminated mixture as fertilizer visit http://www.sludgefacts.org

  8. Hi Helane,

    Many thanks for the great information! I want to follow up with our city government about this issue. Several years ago I witnessed city workers making the compost and asked one of them if it is tested. He told me that it’s tested for pathogens but that’s it. They didn’t seem to care about heavy metals.

    By the way, Los Angeles spreads some of its biosolids on a farm in Kern County called Green Acres (someone has a strange sense of humor). Understandably, the people in Kern County are not too happy about this and passed a petition to stop Green Acres. This year a judge ruled in LA’s favor, unfortunately. I think we, as residents of this city, should have to deal with our own waste and not export it.

  9. Anonymous–do you get the ZooDoo at the zoo or at the city’s compost center up the hill? If the later, I watched the compost being made there and the ZooDoo was mixed with sludge from Hyperion. I wouldn’t use it.

  10. Composting sludge does not kill disease causing organisms, nor does it do anything to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance DNA. The regulations are based on the amount of themophilic E. coli (fecal coliform)that show some minor activity. The problem is that you are infected at mesophilic temperatures.

  11. to make the point about the dangers of reusing municipally- and corporate-processed human waste, this is a brilliant project: http://all-salt.com/

    also the history of the biosolids industry is really interesting– how corporations rebranded human waste and created the idea of ‘beneficial use’- here’s a harpers article about it:

    in addition, fertilizer and wastewater plants that are not state-of-the-art also affect the health of the communities directly around them. small-scale humanure composting operations make alot of sense!

  12. so, in the meantime, what do you suggest we do with all the sewage that is currently being handled? This is a serious question I work for a company with the largest indoor compost facility in the country, and we do all we can to prevent people from flushing pharmaceuticals… but what do you all think is the best option to be rid of the tons of waste being flushed in the meantime?

  13. Hey Andrew,

    Sadly, I don’t think there’s an easy answer for that question other than a shift in the way people think. One first step is that everyone should tour their local sewage facility and meet the people, like you, who have to deal with other people’s bad habits. Putting a face on the problem, I think, is always a good idea.

    And congrats on your job–sounds interesting. What city are you in?

  14. I work in Chino, so I work for Inland Empire Utilities Agency. we are basically a sanitation and recycled water agency. We do a lot of great work. I run the garden in every school grant program that we have. I do outreach, education and conservation programs, it’s tons of fun. lot’s of interesting things go on. we are looking at helping the city of montclair with a community garden next year.

    If you’re ever interested, the next time ya’ll are giving a lecture at cal poly pomona, I’d be happy to give you a tour of our facilities, we aren’t too far from there: including our 22 acre wetland and educational park, our leed platinum building and solar panel field, and we can even take a drive to our compost facility, methane facility… and the giant lone wind turbine we just installed over in rancho cucamonga.

  15. I found this blog through another topic, and now a timely discussion on this. I’ve tried to research certain questions but found the topic impenetrable.

    For me, perhaps, this is a defining illustration of modernity– sacred humus entombed as toxic waste.

    Hence the critical relevance of Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, Pentti Linkola…

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