Sustainable secret to knee-high corn and gardens galore: Human waste-based compost

Sustainable secret to knee-high corn and gardens galore: Human waste-based compost
“Privy 2: Biosolids and You” considers history of human waste as an agricultural resource
This plot of corn, part of a public research installation, popped up on campus in the spring.
This plot of corn, part of a public research installation, popped up on campus in the spring.

By Dana Hilfinger
Ohio State News contributor

A small plot of corn popped up this spring on The Ohio State University’s Columbus campus, and as the adage goes, the stalks are standing knee-high by the Fourth of July.

The crop is growing in soil amended with Com-Til, a compost product made with residual biosolids from the city of Columbus’ wastewater treatment plants.

The corn patch is the public installment of a research collaboration led by Nick Kawa, assistant professor in Ohio State’s Department of Anthropology, and Forbes Lipschitz, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the university’s Knowlton School, to look at the human waste stream. Kawa and Lipschitz are faculty hires in the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation(InFACT).

Funded by a 2018 InFACT Linkage and Leverage grant, the project considers the long history of using human waste as an agricultural resource—and what that looks like today in central Ohio.

The corn patch is located southwest of the 18th Avenue Library.

Com-Til 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 said.

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

Finally, and crucially, the researchers are sharing this information with the public, to encourage and challenge public perceptions of waste. The team is 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic agricultural production.

Still to come: an architectural installation made out of recycled plastics.

Then there is the corn growing in neat rows on that plot in the middle of campus, located southwest of the 18th Avenue Library. Coming later this summer, the space will also include a large snakelike 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 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,” Kawa said. “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 Ohio State colleges: the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences’ School of Environment and Natural Resources’ Professor of Soil and Environmental Chemistry Nick Basta and Assistant Professor Shoshanah Inwoodthe John Glenn College of Public Affairs’ Associate Professor Jill Clark; and the Knowlton School’s Assistant Professor Halina Steiner. It also includes the city of Columbus’ Biosolids Application Coordinator Heather Curtis and Fairfield County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Resource Specialist Jonathan Ferbrache. Multiple Ohio State undergraduate anthropology and landscape architecture students and an Environmental Science Graduate Program master’s student were also involved in the work, looking at students’ perceptions of biosolids and the change in people’s impressions over time.