Solid Waste & Recycling


From Toilet to Table

Do Canadians want sewer and septic waste to fertilize their food lands?

Do Canadians want sewer and septic waste to fertilize their food lands?

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) launched a very quiet public consultation on the use of sewage sludge “biosolids” this summer.

At issue is the management of sewage sludge and septic tank pump out. The CCME Biosolids Task Group has prepared a 13-page policy statement that proposes that municipal, industrial and domestic wastewater sludges should be rebranded “biosolids” and that the use of such materials as fertilizer should be promoted as “Beneficial Use.”

Normally when the CCME tackles a pollutant we see a discussion of standards, harmonized enforcement and pollutant reduction targets.

Not in this case.

The CCME seeks a mandate to declare all agricultural or horticultural endpoints for sludge biosolids as “beneficial”, safe, and preferable to other management endpoints. There is no discussion of what level of pathogens, toxic compounds or pharmaceuticals are acceptable. The policy proposal simply declares that all agricultural use of sludge is “safe.”

This goes to the heart of the folly of this proposed public relations initiative.

There is some mention of using sewage sludge biosolids for renewable energy. However, CCME policy discussion documents suggest further review would be needed to assess greenhouse gas impacts. No corresponding caution is advocated for sludge biosolids on farms.

The people who put this together are the provincial waste management policy officials in charge of municipal wastewater sludges in each province. They clearly believe that renaming sludge “beneficial biosolids” will help provide public acceptance of this cheap waste management strategy. They seek to cast the use of these sewered wastes as a “green recycling” program, rather than as a transfer of toxins from big cities to rural agricultural communities.

Policy counterparts in the solid waste arena have taken a completely different approach. They advocate source-separating wastes so that distinct materials – like cans, cardboard and plastics – are separated at source for recycling. They don’t advocate that all the urban solid waste be diverted to field or forest in an unsorted, undifferentiated mass.

Since sewered waste is really the liquid counterpart of solid waste (with inputs from industries, slaughterhouses, hospitals, laboratories, landfill leachate collection, mortuaries, as well as residences) it’s a mirror for all the mixtures of toxins that were ever in production in our civilization, including substances no longer permitted to be manufactured or used.

To deliberately place such contaminants on our farms as a “preferred practice” seems shockingly shortsighted.

Why should waste managers set policies that will promote toilet toxin-to-table practices? Momentum is now for a Canadian locavore “eat healthy eat local” approach. Our food, water, and health guardians should have the policy lead in what is sustainable for our food lands, not municipal waste administrators.

If policymakers really want to poll the Canadian appetite for food grown on sludge then all food grown or grazed on sludged fields should require special labeling. Just such a proposal is set forth by Jose Serrano in New Jersey. Titled the Sewage Sludge in Food Production Consumer Notification Act, the proposal would consider food to be adulterated when produced on land to which sewage sludge has been applied (or when it’s derived from poultry or livestock raised on or fed with feed produced on such land).

We already know the public is concerned about toxic food production practices, since more and more people want to eat food that is certified organic… food they know is not fertilized with sludge.

Restricting the use of sewered and tankered wastes on farmland would have many positive benefits. It would protect rural drinking wells and surface waters from pollutants leached from sludged farm fields and protect food from the build up of toxic metals, pharmaceutical compounds, and endocrine disruptors. It would promote our food exports to international markets. Sludge farms make better tourist destinations. Sludge free food will reduce the body burden of toxins and protect against the spread of antibiotic resistant pathogens from sewage treatment plants. Sludge free communities are better protected from the spread of contagious diseases like MRSA, SARS, norovirus, and pathogenic E.coli infections.

Protecting our farm communities from these municipal biowastes is the truly “beneficial” strategy; consistent with a precautionary approach, it lowers the risk of soil and water contamination to both the rural resident and food consumer. The CCME needs to take a more comprehensive look at municipal sewer waste and develop more comprehensive and sustainable management policies.

What can you do? Write to Laura Manson at the CCME at to request the consultation documents (already pulled from the web). Contact your provincial Ministers of the Environment, Health, and Agriculture and tell them you don’t want your food grown on sludge.

Remember: You are what you eat.

NOTE: The CCME Biosolids Consultation documents round one can be downloaded from

Maureen Reilly does research and public education on waste and wastewater issues in Toronto, Ontario. To subscribe to the Sludgewatch Listerserve go to: or contact Maureen at

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