With approximately 23,000 Wastewater Treatment Plant facilities in the United States disposing of an estimated 8+ million tons of municipal sludge in 2010, past disposal practices such as landfilling, incineration, and non-agricultural land application need to be minimized and ultimately phased out. A more “green” disposal method is now available and it continues to address relevant issues pertaining to pollutants, disease, and odors. Billions of tons of humic substances are disappearing from soil worldwide annually. These substances, consisting of, fulvic acids, humic acids, and humins—hold sand, silt and clay together to form what we call soil. In the Midwest, floods continue to destroy humic substances in the soil, assuring the return of dust bowls not seen since the 1920’s and 1930’s. In other parts of the country fires, floods, and poor agricultural practices including overgrazing, over plowing, removing topsoil, and excessive use of chemical fertilizers also result in loss of humic substances in the soil. Worldwide, tsunami’s, earthquakes, and other horrific natural disasters contribute to losses in soil and available agricultural land for growing crops. Additionally, worldwide population increases averaging 81 million people per year place future demands on limited resources. In 1999 the United Nations census numbers for humans was 5.8 billion. In 2008, the number was 6.7 billion. In 2012 a global population in excess of 7 billion people exists. It is estimated there will be 10 billion people on the planet before 2080. With these population increases follow a proportionate increase in food consumption, demand for agricultural related products, and increases in organic and inorganic wastes that need to be disposed of in an environmentally safe and cost effective manner. As the number of landfills decline and municipal solid wastes increase, future costs for landfill space are expected to rise sharply. Presently, approximately 30% of sludge is disposed in landfills; however this amount is continually declining due to significant increases in transportation, tipping costs, and a public awareness of other environmentally friendly options available. In 2006, A Cornell college study stated that soil is being swept and washed away 10-40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying cropland the size of Indiana every year; second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces. 99.7% of human food comes from cropland, which is shrinking by more than 10 million hectares (almost 37,000 square miles) a year due to soil erosion. In the United States it costs the nation about $37.6 billion each year in productivity losses. Worldwide the cost is estimated to be $400 billion per year. In 1950 there were 2 million acres of agricultural land. Today there is less than 600,000 acres. 30% of the world’s arable land has become unproductive. To compensate for these losses, U.S. farm output and productivity rose 160% and 260% during this period. How much longer can increased technological advances compensate for greater losses of agricultural land? Greenhouse gases continue to be a growing concern globally. There is approximately 720 billion tons of carbon in our atmosphere. 60 million tons of carbon is added annually from soil when fields are plowed, releasing organic carbon into the air. 5.5 billion tons are added from fossil fuel use and 2.2 billion tons are from deforestation practices. We release 30 billion tons a year, up 30% since 1750; and this could double by 2050. As carbon and methane are major sources of these gases, limiting their release into our atmosphere is of major importance. Landfills continue to be the second largest source of methane accounting for 23% in 2007. Wastewater Treatment Plants were ranked #8 on the list. Of 413 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste collected in 2008, 266 million tons were landfilled. Nearly 30% is paper and 18% is food scraps. These organic wastes could be recycled, reused, and eliminated from the waste stream lessening the carbon and methane emissions that landfills generate. The general public is embracing “Green” technology leading to greater amounts of organic wastes being composted or recycled and kept out of the landfills. So, what does this “Vermistabilization Process” have to do with population growth, declining landfill space, soil erosion, greenhouse gases, agricultural practices and recycling? I’m glad you asked!
A BRIEF HISTORY In 1881, Charles Darwin, referring to the earthworm stated, “It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important role in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures.” He believed that soil could not be present on earth until earthworms evolved and flourished. In 1978, nearly 100 years later, Dr. Roy Hartenstein, (my mentor) with the help of a National Science Foundation grant, re-energized the research and analysis of this seemingly unimportant animal. His findings and lab work concluded that vermiculture has the ability to transform how we dispose of organic wastes and that vermicomposting would result in the return of a valuable byproduct in the way of vermicastings. These castings were later found to be environmentally beneficial as an organic fertilizer and soil amendment for plants and crops. His research, along with two students preparing for their doctorates at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University, found that a class of worms (Redworms) were uniquely suited to be used as a low cost, safe and practical alternative to the disposal of biosolids/sludge in a manner that benefited the environment; unlike landfilling, incineration, or unmanaged land application at that time. Over the past 3 decades others in the Vermicompost and Vermibiotechnology fields throughout the world have utilized these findings to implement conversion of agricultural and other organic wastes through vermicomposting. In the 1960’s and 1970’s energy was cheap and plentiful. Air emission standards were less stringent and landfill space was abundant with lesser regulations. Disposal options included ocean dumping and disposal costs were as little as $10/dry ton. In the 1980’s the Ocean Dumping Ban Act resulted in the ban of dumping sludge into the ocean after 12/31/91. The phase-out of unlined landfills, increased federal regulations and oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency, and public awareness of environmental issues required more costly alternatives to sludge disposal. This combined with concerns over the environmental impact of land application led to alternative options being explored. In the 1990’s, Dr. Clive Edwards, (with the assistance of Dr. Hartenstein) emerged on the scene and under an experimental permit issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, attempted to duplicate earlier research of Dr. Roy Hartenstein and others showing that sludge was able to be converted to Class A biosolids meeting all criteria of EPA Part 503 Processes to Further Reduce Pathogen (PFRP) through the use of Redworms. While his results were encouraging, no approvals were issued to consider this process as an alternative technology for sludge conversion to Class A status. While this vermistabilization process has been embraced and used successfully by other countries in Southeast Asia, Canada, Australia, U.K., Spain, India, Mexico and others, the United States has been slow to approve its use as an EPA 503 PFRP alternative technology. In January, 2010 Worms Operating to Reduce Municipal Sludge, d.b.a. W.O.R.M.S., led by Jerry Scholder, (mentored by Dr. Roy Hartenstein) was started to further advance the science of vermistabilization research and studies with the objective of educating the public of its use as a feasible, safe, and practical method to produce castings which contain humic substances that serve as a biofertilizer and soil conditioner from what was previously a Class B biosolid. A proposed pilot project, to be held in Cocoa Beach, FL is the first in a series that will conclude with a field trial utilizing windrows in an attempt to confirm the vermistabilization process as a suitable alternative to meet EPA Part 503 PFRP Class A biosolids status. In Elkton, Va. led by W.O.R.M.S. partner, Garland Easter, a similar pilot project is planned. Presently, many municipal wastewater treatment plants are landfilling their biosolids at considerable cost and are using valuable landfill space, while contributing to harmful carbon and methane emissions into our atmosphere. The successful use of vermistabilization in disposing of organic wastes would revolutionize the industry of waste disposal as well as address other areas of worldly concern including: greenhouse gases, soil erosion, decreasing land availability for agricultural production, decreasing farming and agricultural revenues, watershed and air pollution, and limited landfill space. Savings of at least 50% to present costs of wastewater treatment plant methods of sludge processing could be realized consisting of savings in labor, energy, chemical additions, transportation and disposal costs, and most importantly in capital costs for expensive machinery and buildings.