Chicago gardeners now have a secret weapon in their quest to grow the juiciest tomatoes or tallest sunflowers – other people’s poop.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the entity responsible for Chicago’s wastewater treatment, has been converting âbiosolidsâ into usable compost since 2016. MWRD’s six treatment plants treat anywhere. from 2 million to 1.2 billion gallons of water every day. MWRD’s processing volume, along with the fact that Cook County is the second most populous county in the United States, makes MWRD one of the largest agencies in the country to provide biosolids compost.
Prior to 2016, the agency made biosolids available for golf courses and sports fields, but in 2015, state law made compost available to the public. Now the fertilizer is composted with wood chips, and anyone can bring a bucket to a pickup site and take as much compost as they want.
But with a billion gallons of sewage flowing through the district’s factories daily, there’s a lot of compost. This realization led MWRD Commissioner Kimberly Du Buclet and her staff to start researching how best to use these biosolids.
âWe’re always looking for ways to get involved and partner with community organizations,â she explains. “[And] we are always looking for ways to innovate while continuing our mission to recover and develop opportunities for reuse of the water, biosolids, algae, phosphorus and other nutrients we collect during wastewater treatment and storm water.
Fortunately, there were community partners interested in using this compost. In winter 2020, The Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative and “florist from the farm to the vase” Southern flowers, contacted MWRD with a plan for the compost. Emerald South owned approximately four acres of land on a vacant lot in the Washington Park neighborhood of Chicago on the city’s South Side. . Emerald South and Southside Blooms were mutually interested in beautifying the land, but planting in that much space requires a lot of fertilizer (or compost). It would be an expensive undertaking.
âWe analyzed the numbers,â says Quilen Blackwell, president of Southside Blooms. âIt would have cost us around $ 7,000 or $ 8,000 if we had to buy [the compost]. ”
MWRD delivered 300 cubic yards – 21 truck loads – for free. (Any organization within MWRD boundaries that can use at least 10 cubic meters of compost is eligible for free delivery.) This compost has enabled Southside Blooms to kick off a wave of sunflower plantations across the four-acre space. The newly established urban farm now has 27 flower beds growing eight-foot-tall sunflowers.
Those familiar with biosolids in agriculture would not be surprised by Southside Blooms’ results. Tacoma, Washington has been selling “TAGRO” compost (Tacoma Grows) from biosolids for almost 30 years.
âWe had our own demonstration garden and started growing flowers there,â says Daniel Thompson, Sanitation Operations Division Manager for the City of Tacoma. âWe started showing our flowers at the state fair and we would win blue ribbons left and right. “
Because Environmental Protection Agency standards state that only Class A Biosolids (pathogen free) can be used as compost, TAGRO compost and MWRD EQ compost are chemically very similar. So while Southside Blooms only uses EQ Compost to grow flowers, biosolid compost can be safely used to grow fruits and vegetables.
âWe started making pumpkins and watermelon and the results were fabulous,â says Thompson. âOther people would see this at the fair, and home gardeners used it for their tomatoes as well. “
Another factor that has boosted TAGRO’s popularity among Tacomans is that it outperforms conventional store-bought compost. Thompson notes that âWashington State University has several studies they did with [their] product compared to Sun mix which is sort of the gold standard for the soil âwhich illustrated the superior performance of TAGRO products.
Replicating these findings in Chicago could be a boon to the long-term goals of Southside Blooms and the Southside Chicago community in general.
“What it’s all about for us is trying to make the flower industry an anchor industry in the downtown core to really reduce a lot of poverty, violence and scourge in our communities,” Blackwell said.
He explains that the flower industry is a 35 billion dollars per year industry in the United States, but 80 percent of the flowers sold here come from overseas. Southside Blooms’ mission is to provide jobs for youth and adults at risk while providing an eco-friendly product. The EQ Compost program is a step in promoting this model of local economic development and beautification.
The environmental benefits of the program are also broad and likely more immediate.
Industrial activities on the south and east sides of Chicago have laced much of the soil in these areas with heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic. As Blackwell explains, sunflowers are in fact effective soil remediation agentsbecause they extract heavy metals from soils. In addition, transforming waterproof asphalt and concrete into green spaces helps protect against flooding. As climate change has led to increased flooding in Chicago, improving flood protection is becoming an increasingly important concern for those at MWRD. With the city’s freshwater supply coming from Lake Michigan, the possibility of excessive flooding of untreated stormwater into the lake poses public health concerns.
The success of Southside Blooms’ work could encourage the growth of more urban farms assisted by the EQ Compost program – inside and outside Chicago.
âWe have a site in Gary, Indiana that we launched this year [and] we would love to be in other cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, you name it, âsays Blackwell. “The larger goal for us is certainly more to create an industry to provide jobs for many of these middle-aged young people who are currently lost on the streets.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a Next City miniseries on local initiatives that could be scaled up as part of a Green New Deal. This series is generously supported by the Environmental Journalism Fund of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Chad Small is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes primarily as an environmental reporter for Blavity: Politics. He is also a financial solutions fellow from the New Economies Reporting Project with the New Economy Coalition. His reporting primarily covers the economic, social and public health effects of environmental racism in the United States and throughout the African Diaspora.