In response to the fuss over Halifax sewage sludge, Contrarian reader S.P. points out that the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, District Sewerage Commission has been selling processed sludge under the brand name Milorganite for more than eight decades. The name, a contraction of Milwaukee organic nitrogen, was the winner of a 1925 naming contest in National Fertilizer Magazine.

MilorganiteA corporate history on the commission’s website explains that product grew out of a pollution control program. Early in the last century, the city formed the commission to clean up organic matter flowing into Milwaukee’s waterways. The commission opened a laboratory to study a British chemist’s scheme for aerating sludge with oxygen and then allowing it to settle in ponds. It decided to incorporate the system into a new treatment plant on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The only question was what to do with the microbial solids that accumulated during the process. The visionary commission established a fellowship at the University Of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture to investigate the use of activated sludge as fertilizer, and by the mid-1930s, it was selling 50,000 tons of Milorganite a year to golf courses and home gardeners. My parents used it when I was a child.

The process is tightly controlled with daily testing that keeps contaminants an order of magnitude below the EPA’s upper limits for “exceptional quality” fertilizer. Further evidence, if more were needed, that the fuss over what we might call Halorganite is ill-informed to the point of silliness, and runs counter to best environmental practices for dealing with human waste. Journalists and city councillors need to start distinguishing between science-based environmentalism and magical belief systems.

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