This story was first published on Next City, a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities through journalism and events around the world.
Gardeners in Chicago have a secret weapon in their quest to grow the juiciest tomatoes or the tallest sunflowers — other people’s poop.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the entity responsible for treating Chicago’s sewage, has been converting "biosolids" into usable compost since 2016. MWRD’s six treatment plants treat anywhere from 2 million to 1.2 billion gallons of water each day. MWRD’s treatment volume, and also the fact that Cook County is the second most populous county in the U.S., makes MWRD one of the largest agencies in the country to provide biosolids compost.
Prior to 2016, the agency made biosolids available for use golf courses and sports fields, but in 2015, state legislation made the compost available to the public. Now, the fertilizer is composted with wood chips, and anyone can bring a bucket to a pickup site and take as much compost as they want.
But with a billion gallons of sewage flowing through the district’s plants daily, there’s a lot of compost. This realization led MWRD Commissioner Kimberly Du Buclet and her staff to begin researching how to best use these biosolids.
"We’re always looking for ways to engage and partner with community organizations," she explained. "[And] we’re always looking for ways to innovate while we continue our mission of recovering and developing reuse opportunities for water, biosolids, algae, phosphorus and other nutrients that we collect during the treatment of wastewater and stormwater."
Fortunately, community partners were interested in using this compost. In the winter of 2020, The Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative and "farm-to-vase florist" Southside Blooms reached out to MWRD with a plan for the compost. Emerald South owned about four acres of land on a vacant lot in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood, in the city’s South Side. Emerald South and Southside Blooms were mutually interested in beautifying the lot, but planting on that much space requires a lot of fertilizer (or compost). It would be an expensive venture.
"We ran the numbers," said Quilen Blackwell, president of Southside Blooms. "It would have cost us like $7,000 or $8,000 if we were to buy [the compost]."
MWRD delivered 300 cubic yards — 21 truckloads — for free. (Any organization within the MWRD’s boundaries that can use at least 10 cubic yards of compost can qualify for free delivery.) This compost allowed Southside Blooms to kick off a surge of sunflower plantings throughout the four-acre space. The newly minted urban farm boasts 27 flowerbeds sprouting 8-foot sunflowers.
Those familiar with biosolids in agriculture wouldn’t be surprised by Southside Blooms’ outcomes. Tacoma, Washington, has been selling "TAGRO" (Tacoma Grows) compost from biosolids for almost 30 years.
"We had our own demonstration garden and we started growing flowers there," said Daniel Thompson, division manager of wastewater operations at the city of Tacoma. "We started entering our flowers in the state fair, and we would win blue ribbons left and right."
It would have cost us like $7,000 or $8,000 if we were to buy [the compost].
Because Environmental Protection Agency standards dictate that only Class A (pathogen-free) biosolids can be used as compost, TAGRO’s compost and MWRD’s EQ Compost are chemically very similar. So while Southside Blooms is only using EQ Compost to grow flowers, biosolid compost is safe to use to grow fruits and vegetables.
"We started to do pumpkins and watermelon and the results were fabulous," Thompson said. "Other people would see that at the fair, and also the home gardeners were using it for their tomatoes."
One other factor that boosted TAGRO’s popularity among Tacomans is that it outperforms conventional, store-bought compost. Thompson notes, "Washington State University has several studies they did with [their] product compared to Sunshine Mix, which is sort of the gold standard for potting soil," which illustrated TAGRO products’ superior performance.
Replication of these results in Chicago could be a boon for the long-term goals of Southside Blooms and the Southside Chicago community, in general.
"What this is about for us is trying to establish the floral industry as an anchor industry in the inner city to really scale down a lot of poverty and violence and blight in our communities," Blackwell said.
He explains that the floral industry is a $35 billion per year industry in the United States, but 80 percent of flowers sold here come from abroad. Southside Blooms’ mission is to provide jobs for at-risk youth and adults while providing an environmentally friendly product. The EQ Compost Program is one step in promoting this model of local economic development and beautification.
The environmental benefits from the program are also broad and likely more immediate.
Industrial activities in the South and East sides of Chicago have laced much of the soils in these areas with heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. As Blackwell explains, sunflowers are actually effective soil remediators, because they draw heavy metals out of the soils. Additionally, turning impervious asphalt and concrete into green space helps with flood protection. As climate change has led to increased flooding in Chicago, improved flood protection is becoming a greater concern for those at MWRD. With the city’s freshwater supply coming from Lake Michigan, the possibility of excess, untreated stormwater flooding into the lake poses public health concerns.
The success of Southside Blooms’ work could encourage growth of more urban farms assisted by the EQ Compost program — inside and outside of Chicago.
"We have a site in Gary, Indiana that we started this year [and] we would love to be in other cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, you name it," Blackwell explained. "The larger goal for us is definitely more about establishing industry to provide jobs for a lot of these average young people who are currently being lost to the streets."