February 29, 2024

Water and Florida

Biosolids: Waste to fertilizer to - pollution?

One region's waste fertilizes another region's pastures — but becomes a source of pollution in the process.

Jason Garcia | 11/28/2018

Economic forces

There is still debate over how much blame biosolids should get for rising phosphorous levels. “I think any people like myself, who have done decades of research, regard the material, when appropriately treated and applied in accordance with the rules, it’s sustainable and safe,” says George O’Connor, a professor of environmental soil chemistry at the University of Florida.

O’Connor attributes the hostility to biosolids as “the yuck factor.” “We’re taught at an early age not to touch feces,” he says. “But some people don’t seem to appreciate the degree to which the waste material as it comes out of a wastewater plant has been treated.”

There are also economic forces at play. An entire industry has sprung up around the disposal of biosolids, as local governments pay haulers to dispose it. (The haulers obtain permits from DEP.) Orange County, for example, pays H&H Liquid Sludge Disposal more than $1.1 million annually to haul away biosolids from just one of its treatment plants. Representatives for H&H, one of the biggest haulers in Florida, did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition, biosolids are a cheap source of fertilizer for cattle ranchers, who get the material for free from the haulers, though there are some nonmonetary costs, such as having to let the pasture rest for a month after biosolids have been applied.

Changes seem inevitable. DEP has put together an advisory committee — including UF’s O’Connor, as well as representatives from utilities, haulers, farmers and environmentalists — that will recommend regulatory or legislative changes ahead of the 2019 legislative session, which begins in March.

The ultimate solution may have to be technological — more efficient ways to upgrade wastewater into better fertilizer or finding other uses for it, such as energy production.

“Between 800 and 1,100 people a day are moving to Florida. We all produce this stuff,” says Gary Ritter, a lobbyist for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation. “At some point in time we need to figure out what do with all of that material, and hopefully there’ll be some technology that comes forward that will be cost-effective and affordable.”

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