One of the World’s Largest and Oldest Sustainability Projects

After the difficult winter of 2015, many of us have our hearts and minds transfixed on outdoor gardening activities. In my gardening research, I came across a huge success story in the world of sustainable living. I hope this information will inspire you, as it has me, to begin using a fertilizer brand for your lawn, vegetable and flower gardens that comes from the oldest recycler in the United States.

Over more than 85 years, the City of Milwaukee has undertaken one of the world’s oldest and largest recycling projects. In 1913, the City of Milwaukee created a sewerage commission to clean up the city’s waterways. By 1919, The Milwaukee Sewerage Commission’s laboratory formally adopted a new process for responsible recycling of biosludge. By 1921, all municipal sewers were connected to this system and processed in a central location at Jones Island, on the shore of Lake Michigan. In 1923 construction began on the first large-scale activated sludge plant in the world.  In 1925, the Sewerage Commission concluded that the disposal problem they faced could be solved by producing and marketing fertilizer. In 1974, the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant was named a National Historic Engineering Site by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Specifically, this new sewerage treatment process was the production of solids – the microbes left over from the treatment process and there was one problem. There were 50,000 – 70,000 tons of dried microbes left after the process and no one thought it responsible or even prudent to dispose this volume of waste and potential valuable resource in the landfill.  So the Sewerage Commission joined forces with the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture, where Professor Emil Truog and O.J. (Oyvind Juul) Noer began investigating uses of activated sludge as a fertilizer.

Noer determined that the average nutrient analysis of the material was 6.2 percent total nitrogen, with 5.17 percent being water insoluble nitrogen (83% WIN); 2.63 percent available phosphate (P205) and 0.4 percent soluble potash (K20). In his literature review, Noer found that the available nitrogen generally resembled so-called high-grade organic nitrogenous fertilizers and gave superior growth results compared to manures and chemical fertilizers of the time.

Noer experimented with field crops and vegetables and on golf courses, the use of this organic nitrogen fertilizer and found it superior and one-third the cost of other fertilizers commonly used at the time. Also, there was no danger of burning the turf even with over-application and it produced a dark green dense turf without causing excessive top growth. Noer knew he had a commercially viable product when word traveled throughout several golf clubs.

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Courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Following are examples of how Milorganite has adopted to market changes over the years. In 1926, most of the Milorganite was sold in bulk, but by the mid-1930s it was also packaged in 25, 50 and 100 lb. bags. In 1955, packaging changed to offer 40 and 80 lb. bags and again in the 1970s as 20 kg bags were introduced with the movement to metric in the U.S. Today, Milorganite is sold in a distinctive 36 lb. bag and a 5 lb. bag exclusively for the retail market, 50 lb. bags for the professional market, and reusable bulk bags for large area applications.  The blending market continues to be important as other companies find the nutrient analysis to be a valuable addition to their products.

Milorganite continues to help fund many important research projects at universities across the country including projects that study nutrient leaching and run-off, the effects of different fertility regimes and sources on irrigation requirements, and the effect of Milorganite phosphorus in the environment.

Milorganite summarizes its success as follows:

  • Since 1926: 9.5 billion lbs of waste diverted from landfill to re-use
  • $308 million dollars generated, providing tax relief for residents of Milwaukee
  • 8 million tons of Milorganite sold
  • Milorganite is regulated by the EPA and complies with the most stringent requirements
  • Milorganite uses alternative energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, and digester methane.
  • The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is leading the nation in “Green” solutions.

For more information and to determine where to purchase, you can visit Milorganite’s web site. You can watch this video to learn more about the product as well.

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Green Ireland–Sustainable Land Use

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Along the River Lee. Cork, Ireland. Photograph, Neva Knott.

By Neva Knott

I’m in Cork, Ireland for a summer writer’s workshop. Of course, I’ve been experiencing this lovely place with a naturalist’s eye. Here’s what I’ve learned…

The River Lee is beautiful to walk along on a summer’s evening here in Cork, Ireland. As I meander along the banks of the Lee, I find two things interesting about this urban waterway, ecologically speaking.

First, much of the riparian zone is intact as the river flows into Cork’s city center. Between the banks and the footpaths stand chestnut, oak, maple, lilac and other deciduous tree species and shrubbery. This vegetation is important to the river’s health because it regulates water temperature so that fish species can thrive and stabilizes the bank, helping with erosion, keeping the river free of sediment, and absorbs storm water overflow should the river rise rapidly.

The second important detail is that the water is clean. I can see to the bottom in many places. The urban rivers I’ve lived along in Oregon–the Willamette and the Columbia–aren’t clean, after years of industrial use. They are murky.

The River Lee is just one example of Ireland’s water quality. According to the blog Move to Ireland, 85 per cent of the country’s lakes and 70 per cent of its rivers are in good quality. What good quality means in environmental terms is that much of the ecology of the waterway is intact–habitat is functioning, vegetation isn’t too degraded, and the water is clean of sediment, pollution such as farm chemical run-off, industrial waste and other pollutants such as trash and fecal matter from farming or human sewage.

Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine runs a Rural Environmental Protection Scheme, working with farmers to keep waterways clean. This is an important consideration because 65 per cent of Ireland’s land is used for farming.

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Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Food Harvest 2020 is another scheme developed by the Department of Agriculture. The idea is to leverage Ireland’s primary industry–farming–as a globally recognized food source while branding Green Ireland as sustainably farmed products. Much of the livestock here is grass-fed already. Much of the farming here is low-input, meaning fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used. Along with maximizing this sustainable practice already in use, the Department urges “alignment of sustainability across the supply chain” and conservation of biodiversity as the agricultural sector works to meet the economic and environmental goals of Food Harvest 2020.

Even with these robust agricultural programs in place, and the tradition of farming continuing into Ireland’s future, some farmers are looking to diversify their income streams. Afforestation–planting and growing trees on land previously cleared for other uses–is one way for farmers to increase revenues. Forest establishment is 100 per cent “grant aided” by the Forest Service in Ireland, according to Forest Enterprises, Ltd. Currently, 11 per cent of Ireland is used for forestry. Government agencies propose afforestation at a rate of 15,000 ha annually. Not only would this increase in trees allow farmers to make more money, but would significantly increase rural employment. Harvested trees would be used for wood products and for wood energy.

One of Ireland’s environmental issues is the conservation of its unique wetlands, bogs. Conservation of bogs has, to date run at cross-purposes with afforestation efforts. Because wetlands everywhere–until very recently–were thought of as wastelands, swamps to be dammed or filled for other purposes, trees have filled in some of Ireland’s crucial blanket bogs.

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Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Scientists, in the last 20 to 30 years, have begun to understand that wetlands provide important ecosystems services. Ireland’s bogs, according to the Ireland Peatland Conservation Council, store millions of tonnes of C02. They also control river catchment and hydrology and provide habitat for key species. Conservation efforts to keep bogs intact are an integral part of Ireland’s overall environmental protection scheme.

Ireland is a beautifully green place, with encouraging environmental protections in place.