The “virtuous circle” is what I long ago termed the recovery of resource value from biosolids, so self-evident to me is the wisdom of our biosolids recycling enterprise. I bookmarked in my browser the Ellen McArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy website a decade ago, so immediately compelled I was to see a connection to our biosolids profession's mission of environmental stewardship. Two years back I wrote a piece on biosolids as part of the circle of life, starting out with a quotation from New-Age philosopher Deepak Chopra. I have a website launched to celebrate the “gospel” of biosolids recycling, The Resource Circle, and, even though I haven’t promoted it with a full-out effort, the site has already attracted a few detractors. You see, I am “all in” with this "circle" concept.

You can imagine my instant interest, then, in the front cover feature of the June 27th issue of Chemical & Engineering News --”Closing the loop on material recycling: Big brands and regulators seek to jump-start the circular economy.” While one article dealt with challenges faced by brand-name clothing manufacturers, the pertinent article for our profession is “Europe circles the circular economy,”  

While the U.K. and the European Union have a vigorous political dialogue underway with Brexit, between its chemists and environmentalists is a vigorous science debate on how to implement a Circular Economy. The European Commission launched in January 2016 its “Circular Economy Strategy,” in a public summary report entitled Closing the loop: New circular economy package. 

This initiative has very ambitious goals for 2030. One of these, to my mind, has “biosolids” written all over it: “The action plan for the circular economy aims to 'close the loop'…. This production and consumption model is based on two complementary loops drawing inspiration from biological cycles: one for 'biological' materials (which can be decomposed by living organisms) and one for 'technical' materials (which cannot be decomposed by living organisms). In both cases, the aim is to limit the leakage of resources as much as possible.”

We, especially, don’t want biosolids leakage.

The tagline to the C&E News article was particularly provocative. It said: “Tempers flare over how to deal with hazardous chemicals in closed loop systems of the future.” The “flared tempers” have direct parallels to biosolids issues.

The article reported: “Environmental activists say the 169 substances of very high concern, which include some phthalate plasticizers used in flexible PVC, that are already controlled under the EU’s Registration, Evaluation & Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) chemical management law, should be automatically excluded from recycling systems under any circular economy legislation.”

The person representing chemists at the Helsinki Chemicals Forum in Finland is Peter Smith, executive director of product stewardship for the European Chemical Industry Council. He said: “The devil is in the details…” The article points out that “one devilish detail is which chemicals would be included in closed-loop recycling systems and which would be excluded on grounds that they present an unacceptable hazard to society.” In Helsinki, Smith argues “Inclusion or exclusion should be made on a case-by-case basis by looking at costs and benefits.” The environmentalists yelled back, literally.

The European commitment to closing the loop is in its early stages of implementation, and already lawsuits have been filed. In the article Chemicals in everyday products under a spotlight we learn “Parliament and member states are suing the Commission over inaction on defining which chemicals can damage human hormones…. for delaying a review of chemicals potentially dangerous to human health that may be lurking in everyday products from coffee to birth control pills.”

Does this feel like familiar territory?

On the heels of the C&E News report, Mother Earth News published (6/30/2016) a third installment of its investigation by Lidia Epp of biosolids use on farmland: “What to Do with Sludge.” Her answer is conversion of biosolids to biofuel or refining it for gold, so potentially worrisome to her are the kinds of chemicals worrisome to European environmental activists.

Herein lies the dilemma. Can there be an a priori sorting of good versus bad chemicals in products present tin today’s marketplace which dictate which loops are closed and which are not? Is biosolids in or out of the loop-closing exercise when such a priori choices are made?

I say they are well within the loop based on sound science. From a public policy and opinion basis, and perhaps even from a science basis, the answer is still an open one.

Work still lies ahead to close the loop regarding the effect of chemicals on loop-closing projects. Europe’s Commission says the loop-closing effort needs to meet three simultaneous conditions:

  1. Manufactures and government need to show they can adequately “characterize the health and environmental effects of thousands of chemicals, with new molecules constantly being developed.”
  2. Regulators and policy makers need to “…create market signals and framework conditions that will encourage rapid adoption of new technologies and practices.”
  3. Government and business need to activate in the market place for “sustainable consumption on a large scale.”

The European community has jumped out ahead on this project of almost mind-numbing complexity. Where is the U.S. in all of this?

While environmental policies have not been so clearly framed in terms of loop closing, a few such compatible initiatives live in the U.S. To advocate for the design of sustainable “green products,” the Product Stewardship Institute brings together manufacturers, the waste industry and government. One of PSI’s advocacies is for adoption in the U.S. of a 15-year-old European initiative called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws. PSI is thinking pharmaceutical take-back programs, for instance -- a good thing for those of us who see the consequence of drugs flushed to the sewer. To promote use of sustainable products, the Sustainability Consortium, constituted by many trade associations, large manufacturers and a few “civil society” organizations, claims “Members play an essential role in helping us get closer to achieving our mission to improve sustainability of consumer goods at scale.” It would be great for our industry when, for example, flame retardants and anti-bacterial compounds are phased out of use. To create a commercial marketplace, Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, supports procurement standards for green products.

How can the biosolids profession get into the loop-closing game?

What if we biosolids practitioners were to join the “closing the loop” movement by demonstrating that biosolids are a part of the emerging “bioeconomy,” in contrast to the “fossil economy.” We, too, could help produce fun videos explaining how our biosolids-based products are good for communities and the environment, as the Brits did with the YouTube animation “The bioeconomy starts here!” We, too, could get our biosolids-based materials classified as a “biobased products,” or perhaps even designated by the USDA as “biopreferred.”

What if we leaders of the nation’s wastewater systems were, with a coordinated voice, to take part in the “activation of sustainable consumption on a large scale”? As organizations that serve every flushing customer, which is everybody, we could ask them to choose products and practices that improved the quality of their community’s biosolids, earning them the privilege to “close the loop.”

To date we have been strangely silent in the kind of debate that was reported in Helsinki of how to deal with persistent pollutants, but we can reverse that silence, and put ourselves on the side of the activists as beneficiaries of reduced use of persistent organic chemicals in consumer products.

We need New Ideas to Close the Circle

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