The playbook for public officials goes something like this: deliver remarks, sit patiently as several others do the same, then smile for the cameras as you move a gleaming shovel through a tidy pile of dirt. I’ve probably taken part in a dozen ground-breaking ceremonies over the years, first as a mayoral appointee and then as the head of a large utility.
On its face, DC Water’s latest announcement event last week had all the makings of another ground-breaking.
But the similarities ended there. We weren’t “breaking ground” on a new project with our shovels only to watch the real excavation begin once the cameras were packed away. We were announcing the launch of Bloom, DC Water’s Class A, Exceptional Quality biosolids product. What we moved with our shovels wasn’t dirt, but Bloom itself. We used it to top-dress a tree in Ward 8 of the District of Columbia.
How do we make Bloom?
Our customers send us a daily, stadium-sized flow of water they no longer need. Our Blue Plains resource recovery facility cleans it. Four things come out of that process. Trash, including sediment and things that really shouldn’t be flushed, goes to landfill. Clean water, meeting precise EPA standards for nutrients such as phosphorous, goes back into the Potomac. Renewable energy, which we get by adding high temperature and pressure to the solids that come out of the treatment process, powers a third of our plant with electricity we no longer have to buy. And biosolids, which remain, go through a press to remove water and become Bloom.
Before we built our CAMBI system, we produced Class B biosolids. Not as clean, and subject to different regulations than Class A, this type of material works great on farms. We would pay millions of dollars a year to truck it down to farmers in Virginia, who were delighted to receive it for free. In fact, we had a 2-year waiting list! But that’s a lot of trucks and a lot of money. It’s also the traditional way of recycling biosolids in the United States.
With Class A Bloom, we are shifting our business from waste disposal to resource recovery.
Simply put, we’ve gone from producing a byproduct with a recycling cost to producing a resource that people will pay for. Bloom is pathogen-free, moisture-retaining, weed-resistant and an amazing source of nutrients. Plants love it.
Bloom is great for the environment. It reduces the number of diesel tractor-trailers we have to send down the highway to apply biosolids to farm fields. It can reduce or eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers. And it keeps nutrients close to where they’re produced.
Bloom is great for DC Water’s bottom line. As the cost of growing, operating and maintaining our system continues to grow, so do our customers’ monthly water and sewer bills. You’ve read in this space before about our innovative efforts to find new revenue to offset our costs. The sale of Bloom, and the offset of the trucking costs, is our largest such opportunity to date.
So what is Bloom really like? And will consumers really respond to the idea of putting something that started with a flush on their tree boxes and community gardens?
Well, I can tell you that when you do what I do for a living, you hear a lot of poop jokes. I can also tell you that on that cloudy spring day in DC when we launched Bloom, my fellow speakers and I held court for close to an hour near a large pile of the stuff. Several trucks of it were also nearby. It’s a product that looks and feels like topsoil, and has no discernible odor. In fact, our friends from Casey Trees had spread some shredded hardwood mulch on a nearby tree. We could easily smell the mulch, but not the Bloom.
You might be surprised to learn there is opposition to the use of biosolids. Largely aimed at Class B, the arguments center around minuscule amounts of metals and other materials that end up in the treated product. But reams of science on the topic, assembled by government agencies, universities and research organizations tell a more credible story than those who seek to raise alarm and stoke fears. Amazingly, the opponents have tried to claim that those of us who work in the public sector to improve the environment have somehow tried to foist a harmful product onto an unsuspecting public!
Nothing could be further from the truth.
We will have some consumer education to do, about the origins of biosolids and the best and safest ways to use them. But my team is ready for that task. In fact, every year, our resource recovery staff plants a demonstration garden at Blue Plains. I’ve had the pleasure of eating wonderful tomatoes planted in Bloom, and I’d have no hesitation about feeding these to my family or using a Bloom soil mix at my house.
The idea of looking for value in what we discard isn’t new, of course. Centuries ago, in the days before the centralized wastewater treatment we now take for granted, “night soil” lived in cesspits or open sewers until it could be hauled away — usually by cart. Back then, London’s “toshers” would comb through the city’s sewers in search of valuables. Those were dark times for human health, and there’s no understating the benefit of indoor plumbing or centralized waste collection. What hasn’t changed is the desire for resource recovery.
Today, we can use bacteria and state-of-the-art automated technology to do the work and benefit all instead of difficult, dangerous and exploitative labor practices. And we can protect public health through modern treatment techniques instead of applying waste directly to farm fields.
In the modern era, the idea of resource recovery through the sale of biosolids is also not new. Our friends in Milwaukee have sold their terrific Milorganite across the country for 90 years, including here in DC. Similar story for Tacoma, Washington and Tagro. In our market, we’ll first find ourselves alongside agricultural byproducts, leaf compost and other feedstocks for blending and large-scale commercial use. I’m mindful that our Board Chairman, Matt Brown, used to work at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District and has urged me to put Bloom in our local hardware stores for retail sale next to Milorganite. We are probably a couple years off from that milestone, but my staff and I do love a challenge!
In the next six months, a few partner companies and organizations will take Bloom from us in bulk and tell us what they find out about how to blend it and apply it. It is a new product, and we have much to learn about how it performs and the local market for it.
You’ll hear much more about Bloom in the weeks and months to come. You can also visit our website at bloomsoil.com.