The Capital Regional District (CRD) is stuck between a rock and a hard place. By seeking alternatives to disposing sewage sludge into the Juan de Fuca strait, the question arises: what else do we do with it?

An answer that seems to appear throughout North America is to “treat” sewage waste, rename it biosolids and spread it on land as a “soil amendment.” At first glance, this may appear to be an environmentally sound approach. Rather than treat sewage sludge as waste, why not recycle it and turn it into a resource?

If only things could be so simple.

I first learned about using human waste as a fertilizer while living in rural Nova Scotia, and initially thought it was a great idea. I was doing research at Acadia University,  exploring the degree to which the history of western agriculture has been characterized by a “scorched earth” policy: harvest as many nutrients from the soil as possible and either move on once the land has become exhausted, or become dependent on oil-intensive synthetic fertilizers. After studying traditional agriculture in Southeast Asia (where the same land had been farmed for thousands of years), I began to appreciate that human waste was considered a valuable fertilizer. The “night soil” of town and city residents was collected and transported to the countryside to fertilize the soil – in fact, human waste was so valuable that the collectors often paid residents for it.

As a result of my research, I was reluctant to believe Nova Scotia activists in their quest to ban biosolids. I thought: “Given that humans are animals, our waste is manure like any other animals’ so why would we keep this valuable source of fertility from our lands? Why continue to remain dependent on synthetic fertilizers or difficult-to-source animal manures while dumping valuable nutrients into ocean ecosystems?” I decided to research the issue further to find out why my friends at the Nova Scotia Environmental Network and at the local agricultural college were so at odds with each other on this issue. After looking into it, it became clear to me that biosolids and “night soil” were far from the same thing.

Our sewage system was built to collect almost everything that goes down the drain, which creates a dangerous cocktail of domestic, commercial, hospital, industry and street run-off sources of sewage and septic sludges. As a result of this diverse array of sources, it is very difficult to separate  harmful toxins from useful soil amendments. This broke the link in my mind between biosolids and “night soil.”‘ While human waste is a viable source of fertilizer on its own, it must be remembered that biosolids is human waste mixed with whatever else happened to find its way into the sewer.

What was difficult to accept was that there is no simple way to separate the good from the bad. “Treating” biosolids involves adding more toxins to the mix to remove pathogens, but you can’t treat the 60,000 other pollutants that find their way into the end product. It seemed that the organic farmers and environmental activists of Nova Scotia were right: biosolids solved the city’s waste management problems, but in the process threatened the environmental health and well-being of the countryside.

In fact, biosolids pose a significant threat to human health. Throughout North America, the land application of biosolids has led to health problems, and in some extreme cases death, for those living on or near an application site. There are at least 21 known carcinogens, 30 heavy metals, flame retardants, steroids, hormones and so on, all adding up to around 60,000 chemical substances and pollutants to be found in biosolids.

As if that weren’t bad enough, they also threaten the health of our region’s soil. Toxins enter the groundwater, drain into surrounding farms, are carried by animal and human foot traffic and can be carried by wind. Biosolids have a habit of both sticking around and being incredibly mobile at the same time.

Biosolids are sewage sludge; they’ve simply been renamed and reclassified – renamed because sludge just doesn’t have the same eco-friendly ring to it as bio-solids, reclassified because sewage sludge was once classified as toxic waste.

This is greenwashing at its worst.

Here in the CRD, we need an alternative to dumping sewage sludge into the ocean, but the land application of biosolids is most certainly not it. Until we mature enough as a culture to stop dumping harmful toxins down the drain (whether in our homes or at the industrial level), sewage waste will be toxic sludge. Until that day comes, small-scale domestic solutions such as composting toilets or alternative uses for biosolids, such as the CRD’s current proposal to use them as a coal substitute in cement kilns, seem more palatable.

Stefan Morales is co-director of the Wayward School and is also a researcher, artist, writer and educator currently living in Victoria, British Columbia. His recent work has centered around political theory and political ecology. He has both worked and studied soil as an amateur gardener and an MA student at Acadia University in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. You can find more of his writing here.

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