On Saturday, I will drive to the Kirie Water Reclamation Plant in Des Plaines to pick up a bag of free compost for my garden. It’s part of an open house the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, with the largest wastewater treatment facility in the world, will have at six plants.

It’s not just any compost. It is made from nutrient-rich biosolids, the term for the treated and processed human waste, or sludge, that travels from our toilets through 20,000 miles of local sewers and ultimately to the MWRD.

Cue the jokes here, if not the “ick” factor. But don’t be quick to pooh-pooh biosolids. They’re an organic recycled product that every state applies to land. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers them safe, though it isn’t doing enough to study the effects of chemicals we send down drains and the pharmaceuticals we ingest and emit.

OPINION

Four years ago, I wrote about biosolid composting by the MWRD and its plan to bring to market biosolids in the way Milwaukee sludge is being turned into a commercially sold fertilizer called Milorganite.

I visited the MWRD recently, along with Sun-Times photojournalist Ashlee Rezin, to check on progress. I hope you’ll check out Rezin’s video for a glimpse of how the MWRD, in treating wastewater, turns sludge into high-quality compost coveted by farms and golf courses.

Since last summer, the MWRD has been selling its exceptional quality compost to the general public for $10 a cubic yard plus tax at the Harlem Avenue Solids Management Area in Forest View and Calumet Solids Management Area in Chicago.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill into law three years ago to green-light the sale of biosolids to the public, as long as certain processing and treatment guidelines are followed. The MWRD has come a long way in processing biosolids and for years has been effectively removing metals and pathogens as required by the EPA.

I watched recently as cranes filled big-rig trailers with biosolids from the MWRD that were headed for farms throughout the state. Farmers love the stuff because it is rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and organic matter. Using it saves farmers a lot of money. Most get it for free because wastewater treatment plants have tons of it available.

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The biosolids train unloads solids from the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant to lagoons at the Lawndale Avenue Solids Management Area (LASMA).  | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

‘Ick’ factor persists

Biosolids aren’t being used for crops that go directly to your table, for the most part, Russ Higgins, a University of Illinois Extension educator in commercial agriculture, told me. Illinois’ largest crop, corn, is mostly raised for ethanol or livestock feed. Soybeans are a close second to corn, also largely for livestock feed.

A University of Illinois Extension educator for small farms, James Theuri, said the U. of I. doesn’t recommend farmers use biosolids on fruit and vegetable crops.

There are two issues, Theuri said. One is attitude. People think it’s icky (but all manure fertilizers are icky, generally). The other is a concern about pharmaceuticals and chemicals affecting low-growing edible plants. There isn’t enough research on potential effects.

Hauling away biosolids to farms costs the MWRD about $5 million a year, executive director David St. Pierre told me. The hope is that the agency can recoup some of those costs by marketing it to the general public. If that goes well, it could reduce supply to farmers and raise demand, along with the possibility that farmers would pay for it.

That won’t happen anytime soon. Marketing is still in early stages.

“We’re looking at ways to get the word out,” St. Pierre said. “We haven’t given it a name.”

NY pooh-poohs biosolids

The MWRD no longer has to send biosolids to landfills, as some states do. New York City fills rail cars with sludge (a poo-poo train) and sends them to landfills in the South that have cheap dumping rates. A controversy ensued earlier this year in Alabama when the town of West Jefferson, located near a landfill, got an injunction to bar the dumping, and the stinky train got stuck for two months near the small town of Parrish.

New Yorkers, apparently, aren’t big fans of biosolids. Whereas garden beds at Maggie Daley Park and the popular 606 Trail were cultivated with biosolids, we probably wouldn’t see the same at Central Park in New York.

If New York City tried to send biosolids upstate, “we’d have a civil war in the state, I’m pretty sure,” Murray McBride, a soil contaminant expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, told me.

I asked New York’s wastewater treatment agency about its biosolids program but didn’t hear back. McBride, though, hears from communities in the Northeast that worry about applying biosolids to farmland. Some say it makes them sick; others complain about the smell. (I didn’t detect an odor on the finished product at the MWRD).

“The EPA likes to say people are being hysterical,” McBride said. “These people are really getting sick. What’s blowing off fields is infecting people.”

McBride raises legitimate concerns about the EPA. Scientists know chemicals and pharmaceuticals are present in biosolids, and the EPA isn’t doing enough to study the effects. The EPA’s rules on biosolids are in a guide that is 24 years old. Surely, it needs updating.

If the EPA doesn’t lead, this significant recycling project won’t evolve to earn the public’s trust. And we’ll never get past the “ick” factor.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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A compost screener removes larger pieces of woodchips, which are used as a bulking agent for composting with biosolids in open windrows, from finished compost at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times