The problem of “waste” in the U.S. is both a local and a federal issue, with the Environmental Protection Agency providing the scientific veneer, among others, for the nation’s profit-at-any-cost, multibillion dollar sewage sludge, garbage, and chemical fertilizer industries. Several decades ago, after public pressure forced corporations and municipalities to stop dumping toxic sewage sludge into the oceans and waterways (it was killing all the fish and marine life and polluting beaches), the EPA decided it was time to rename this hazardous waste “organic fertilizer” (or “biosolids”) and to begin to spread municipal sewage sludge on millions of acres of non-organic farmland and rangeland. Emboldened by their success, EPA and the sludge industry then tried to tell us in 1998 that it would be OK to spread sewage sludge on organic farms as well. Fortunately OCA and the organic community beat them back as part of a massive nationwide grassroots campaign called Save Organic Standards (SOS).
A steady stream of greenwashing and false solutions that encourage waste production instead of waste reduction are coming at us from corporate marketing departments and the federal government. OCA believes that positive action to encourage waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting (real organic composting, not renaming sewage sludge or industrial waste as compost) is most likely to arise at the local level. Several cities have taken positive actions in the direction of zero waste, but the devil is in the details.
Take household and industrial sewage sludge for example. For decades sewage sludge (the end product of the nation’s thousands of Wastewater Treatment Plants) was dumped in the oceans and rivers, now it is spread on non-organic farms and rangelands, while current industry plans include burning it and turning it into an energy source; but the fundamental problem isn’t what to do with billions of pounds of toxic sewage sludge produced every year (obviously we must isolate and contain it as hazardous waste), but rather how can we stop producing it in the first place. Household sewage, contaminated as it is with chemical cosmetics, toxic household cleaners and any number of pharmaceutical drugs poured into toilets and kitchen sinks, isn’t pristine; but, to paraphrase Bob Hope, it’s not the shit, it’s what we’ve done to it. After the toilet is flushed or the drain is emptied, household waste is funneled into a vast underground sewage system, where it joins a toxic stew of industrial and hospital wastes and rainwater runoff from our streets and highways. Allowing corporations to flood the environment and the waste stream with 100,000 synthetic, mostly toxic chemicals, (most of which end up in sewage sludge), less than 1% of which have ever been proved to be safe for the environment and public health, is a form of insanity. Besides contaminating the water and soil, this irrational so-called “sewage treatment” process wastes enormous amounts of potable water.
At a certain point, cities and towns must come to the realization that using clean water to flush away household waste; engineering rooftops, roadways and streets to funnel rainwater into our sewage systems (instead of capturing it or percolating it back into the soil); and allowing industry and hospitals to discharge toxic chemicals into our wastewater stream just doesn’t make sense. Composting (non-water) toilets, rooftop water catchments and cisterns, and zero discharge of synthetic chemicals potentially or actually proven to hazardous to human health and the environment (the “precautionary principle”) are not fringe ideas, but rather the wave of the future. That is if there is a future.
Human and animal manure, (separated from and free from chemical and pharmaceutical residues), throughout the centuries, and in the present time can and should be safely composted and utilized as a fertilizer on fields, farms, and forests. Although current organic standards prohibit the use of compost derived from human manure (properly composted animal manure is allowed) on food crops, feeding the soil with properly composted “humanure” (or producing methane gas for energy use through bio-digesters) will no doubt become the norm in the future as fossil fuel and water supplies dwindle and chemical fertilizer costs become prohibitive.
Tune in to future issues of Organic Bytes for OCA’s ideas on how we can and must reform our garbage, sludge, and chemical fertilizer industries and put an end to the rampant consumerism that is literally poisoning the planet with garbage and toxic chemical