One of the most edifying books I read in 2013 was Rose George’s The Big Necessity, first published in the U.S. in 2009. George, a British journalist, delves into history, descends into city sewers, visits a Japanese factory that makes robo-toilets, and interviews the leaders of India’s “open-defecation-free” campaign in her exploration of “the unmentionable world of human waste.” If you like the work of Mary Roach (who blurbed George’s book), you’ll love the combination of thorough research and zesty writing in The Big Necessity.
In addition to some boggling statistics (2.6 billion people have no access to even the most primitive form of sanitation), The Big Necessity offers some good stories about language and names. Here, for example, is the story of how and why “sludge”—first used, in the late 19th century, to mean “the precipitate matter in sewage tanks”—was reinvented a century later as “biosolids.”
First, a little background from Chapter 7, “The Battle of Biosolids”:
The Harper-Collins Dictionary of Environmental Science defines sludge as “a viscous, semisolid mixture of bacteria and virus-laden organic matter, toxic metals, synthetic organic chemicals and settled solids removed from domestic industrial waste water at a sewage treatment plant.” The Clean Water Act keeps it simple and calls it a pollutant.
“[B]y the end of the [20th] century sludge contained far more than pure human excrement,” George writes, “and hardly any of it good. Anything that goes into the sewers can end up in sludge.”
Decades ago, one pioneering sewage authority determined to turn sludge into metaphorical gold:
In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) has been selling its sludge as fertilizer since 1925, with discreet labeling. Only someone who knew what MMSD stood for would realize Milorganite is derived from a human body.
The sludge and wastewater industry looked at Milorganite and saw the light. No one would want to live near farms where sewage sludge was applied. But people might want to live near fields that were covered in a fertilizer called something else. The transformation of sludge into “biosolids” was brilliantly documented in Toxic Sludge Is Good for You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. The book was about “the lies, damn lies” of the PR industry in general, but the maneuvers of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the U.S. sewage industry association, were impressive enough to provide the authors with their title. The EPA, they write, was conscious even in 1981 of the need to persuade the public to accept sludge farming. A Name Change Task Force was formed, and suggestions solicited through a WEF newsletter. The 250 suggestions received included “bioslurp,” “black gold,” “the end product,” “hudoo,” “powergro,” and—my favorite—ROSE, standing for “Recycling Of Solids Environmentally.” [Ed: A ROSE by any other name would smell as sweet?] Biosolids won, probably because it was the blandest. Maureen Reilly, a prominent sludge opponent and the producer of the prolific SludgeWatch newsletter, calls this “linguistic detoxification.”
In an endnote, George gives more detail about Milorganite:
Milorganite was named by McIver and Son of Charleston, South Carolina, who entered a competition to name the new fertilizer in National Fertilizer Magazine in 1925. Milorganite stands for Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen. Its history is told at http://www.milorganite.com.
According to that website, “Milorganite fertilizer is one of the oldest branded fertilizers on the market today.”