Processed Sewage Waste Can Help Soil Health, Avoid Landfills

Oct 20, 2020

The percentage of biosolids that went to beneficial uses (other benefit, additional treatment, land application) and disposal techniques (other disposal, incineration, landfill) from 1998 to 2004. Additional treatment is considered a beneficial use and encompasses techniques like composting. Land application includes adding biosolids into soil on farms and elsewhere.

Using the products of sewage treatment to fertilize soil may turn waste into a valuable resource.

When waste goes into a sewage treatment plant, the plant spits out clean water and biosolids.

Caitlin Youngquist, University of Wyoming biosolids expert, said biosolids have been treated and broken down. What remains can be very useful, much like cow manure, when applied to farms and other land.

"Especially when it's composted, it's a very safe product," she said. "There's a tremendous amount of carbon and other good nutrients and really can help us build soils. There are so many places where, particularly in Wyoming or in the arid west, it would be a great benefit to get a lot of these products back into the soil."

Youngquist said a lot of research has proven that using biosolids is safe. She said any antibiotics, chemicals, or metals that go down the drain will be broken down when the waste is processed and composted.

"If we think about biosolids as a resource instead of as a waste, I think there's a lot of opportunity to be able get those nutrients and that carbon back into the system," said Youngquist.

Biosolids are used agriculturally, but they also end up in landfills or are incinerated. Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency and North East Biosolids & Residuals Association (NEBRA) respectively show that the split between beneficial uses and disposal of biosolids was about half and half from 1998 to 2004, although the distribution changed slightly.

NEBRA is planning to release a more recent study exploring the uses of biosolids in March 2021.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.