Changing Times in Residuals and Biosolids Management
By George Martin
May 7, 2013
As the 503 regulations turn 20 years old, we face many new challenges with the same question asked in our industry for years: "What method do we use to reuse or manage our community’s residuals or biosolids?" According to a recent WEF position statement, biosolids "are a renewable resource that is too valuable to waste in the context of growing needs for renewable energy and sustainability." Times have changed, and so have the opportunities.
In 1993 the U.S. economic landscape looked very different than today. The industrial engine was churning, the housing market was expanding and utilities across the country were providing the infrastructure needed to support these areas. Rate structures and financial plans were laid on the foundation of continued customer-base growth generating increasing amounts of waste and utilities expanded. During this unprecedented growth period, 503 was enacted and halted some traditional disposal methods such as ocean dumping of what was then considered waste. One alternative was landfilling, but landfills were already overburdened and not easily or quickly expanded. They increased tipping fees in response to the increased demand, a price tag that at the time could be accommodated due to an ever-expanding customer base.
Fast forward to 2013, when the United States is continuing the slow recovery from our recession. Customer bases have declined and shifted, water conservation efforts have decreased billable flows, and the industrial engine now is idle at best. Most utilities have to find ways to continue to protect public health with less and are working under a heightened sense of economic pressure. Older biosolids and residual disposal alternatives may not look as attractive now, especially in light of the capability for renewable energy generation from wastewater. Utilities can produce clean water, recover nutrients, and potentially reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuel through the production and use of renewable energy, and biosolids can play a part in that effort. Link to WEF Renewable Energy Generation from Wastewater Position Statement.
Our challenge going forward is to develop cost-effective practices that are sustainable environmentally and economically. A big focus at Residuals and Biosolids 2013 will be how to develop emerging opportunities for sustainable resource recovery, and that’s a question for communities everywhere.