The biosolid bonanza

Looking for a really crappy investment opportunity?


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Andrew Leonard
March 29, 2006 4:45AM (UTC)

I just want to say one word to you -- just one word. Well, two words, actually. "Sewage sludge." There's a great future in sewage sludge. Think about it. Will you think about it?

For kicks, I like to spend part of my day looking at the world from the perspective of the resource extraction community -- or, as they are more commonly known, miners and drillers. Where the rest of the world sees imminent disaster from peak oil and climate change, they tend to see investment opportunities, and I find it useful to know where they are sniffing about.

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Yesterday, I read a report hyping water investment opportunities from a consulting company called Emerging Trends Report. Well, more to the point, I read an impressively detailed analysis of how world water supplies are under serious stress and we're all doomed. So the time to get in on the bottom floor is now! Invest in the water business! As the report says, water might be heavily regulated, but it "suffers few of the downsides of traditional industry: new products will not come on the market to compete with or replace it; business cycles do not have an effect on its price; and demand consistently outpaces customer growth."

Alas, if I wanted some hot tips on companies to invest in, I had to pony up $300 for the full report, and that's not exactly how How the World Works works. So I went googling for investments in the water business and discovered the delightful Water Investment Newsletter, which graciously allowed me free access to a sample copy of its October installment.

Psst. Forget about staid old water utilities. The real action is in organic residuals. Whaddya mean, what's that? Biosolids! Oh, come on -- sewage sludge!

Yep, the bulk of October's Water Investment Newsletter is hyping the much-maligned industry of wastewater treatment byproducts. According to Stephen J. Hoffman, it's "a business that continues to gain momentum despite a challenging political and regulatory environment."

Amazingly, the commercial use of sewage sludge, which was rechristened in the mid '90s at the behest of the waste management industry as "biosolids," "has been hampered by the negative perception of sewage sludge, regardless of how much treatment it undergoes." Who would have imagined it?

But I jest too much. Environmentalists are suspicious of biosolid pushers who tout their organic residuals as a cheap, sustainable substitute for commercial fertilizer. They worry about a huge array of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and other pathogens. And who can blame them? When the institutions of government are as firmly controlled by industrial special interests as they are right now, it's hard to have any faith in EPA declarations that so-called Class A biosolids really are clean enough to reenter the food chain.

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However, from a global, holistic standpoint, it seems to me that in principle we should be exerting extraordinary efforts to make the best use of every last bit of waste we produce, and that includes everything that gets flushed down the toilet. Look at it from a peak oil standpoint: As the doomers are quick to warn us, commercial fertilizer is based on petrochemical products. So we are all eating oil. Anything we can do to find other sources of fertilizer eases our dependence on the black gold. And from an environmental standpoint, the less stuff dumped in landfills the better. Recycle, reuse -- we really don't have any choice but to embrace our sludge, provided satisfactory controls are in place to ensure that what goes from the waste-water plant to the farm is certifiably clean and healthy.

I don't know yet if I'm ready to run out and buy some shares of Synagro, the 800-pound gorilla of processed crap, but I really wish the best to the entire industry. There appears to be a lot of room for innovation in coming up with new technologies to deal with yucky stuff, and it's just that kind of ingenuity that makes America great.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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