“Privy 2: Biosolids and You” coming soon to the OSU campus

June 25, 2019

Possibly you noticed the small plot of corn that popped up in May just southwest of the 18th Avenue Library.

Growing in a soil amended with ComTil, this is the public installment of a research collaboration led by the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) faculty hires Nick Kawa (assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology) and Forbes Lipschitz (assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Knowlton School) to look at the human waste stream. The project, funded by a 2018 InFACT Linkage and Leverage grant, considers the long history of using human waste as an agricultural resource – and what that looks like today in the Columbus area.

ComTil, a compost product made with residual biosolids from the City of Columbus's wastewater treatment plants, is used in landscaping and gardens around the city to grow plants. But it's just one example of how processed waste from domestic sewage plants, termed biosolids, can be used as a resource for crop production.

“The overarching goals of this research are to understand the processes by which human waste is transformed into an agricultural resource, and in a related manner, we aim to understand problems and possibilities this resource represents to the future of urban sustainability,” Kawa explains.

To do that, the research team interviewed wastewater treatment professionals and farmers using biosolids in Ohio to understand both the process and perceptions of their use. The information collected is also being compiled visually, using GIS mapping and visualization methods.

Finally, and crucially, the team is sharing this information with the public, to encourage and challenge public perceptions of waste. They are in the process of publishing a zine that features essays by researchers and students on the history of sanitation, the use of human waste as fertilizer and why it's not currently used in USDA-certified organic agricultural production.

Then there is the corn growing in neat rows on that plot in the middle of campus. Coming later this summer, the space will also include a large snake-like architectural installation made out of recycled plastics – a gesture to the immense plumbing infrastructure that carries our waste – as well as an area to sit and reflect on this system. Conceived in collaboration with Knowlton Associate Professor of Architecture Justin Diles, the installment is titled, “Privy 2: Biosolids and You.”

“I'm really interested as an anthropologist in how culture shapes our ability to perceive something as waste, when not all societies may share that perception or stigma,” says Kawa. “So this isn't about promoting biosolids, per se, but it's about making people rethink their waste and how that has much broader consequences for agricultural production and the management of our soils.”

The project team includes faculty across multiple colleges, including School of Environment and Natural Resources Professor of Soil and Environmental Chemistry Nick Basta and Assistant Professor Shoshanah Inwood, Glenn College Associate Professor Jill Clark, Knowlton School Assistant Professor Halina Steiner, as well as City of Columbus Biosolids Application Coordinator Heather Curtis and Fairfield County Soil and Water Conservation District Resource Specialist Jonathan Ferbrache. Multiple undergraduate anthropology and landscape architecture students and an Environmental Science Graduate Program Masters student were also involved in the work, looking at students' perceptions of biosolids and the change in people's impressions over time.