What public relations can do for human excrement

March 21, 2012

Most of us are taught from an early age that human shit is taboo–it should neither be touched nor touched upon in polite conversation. Consequently, most people probably don’t think much about what happens to their shit after they flush it down the toilet. But perhaps they should, and perhaps this taboo around shit needs to be abandoned, for there are people, businesses, entire industries working in dark corners of the waste economy finding clever ways to sell you your own shit. 

How is this possible? Why would anyone want to buy it? Good questions and very much related to questions like “Why do so many people smoke?” “Why do they drink Coca-Cola?” and “Why did the majority of Americans support the invasion of Iraq? In each case a major part of the answer is public relations, the art of persuading people to buy or accept products or ideas that are not in their interest.

In the case of shit, the basic trick in getting the public to warm up to the product is to call it something else, such as “organic biosolids.” After that it’s just a matter of adding a few chemicals to deal with the offensive odor, presenting it in fancy packaging, and perhaps paying off a few politicians. If you want to know the full details, Sara Jerving has written an article on it entitled “New Toxic Sludge PR and Lobbying Effort Gets Underway” posted on PR Watch. Here are a couple of representative passages from the article:

The US Composting Council (USCC), which was founded by the disposable diaper industry, will be expanding its long-standing efforts to “rebrand” sewage sludge, which is increasingly disposed of on agriculture crops and through garden centers without telling the public that their food is being grown in medical, industrial, and human waste.

Earlier this year, the USCC announced that it hired a PR firm, Colehour + Cohen, to help with the rebranding efforts and that it will also be increasing lobbying efforts.

The word “compost” traditionally has applied to vegetable material and scraps gardeners and farmers collect to re-use on crops and gardens. The USCC uses the term “compost” on an industrial scale to include sewage sludge, as well as other commercial and municipal waste. 

The sludge industry is no stranger to rebranding. As CMD has previously reported, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), a sludge industry trade group, recently decided to rebrand municipal sewage plants “water resource recovery facilities.”

The common goal of all the rebranding efforts is to make the use of sewage sludge on farms and gardens sound more pro-environmental and less worrisome than calling sewage sludge what it is. In reality, sewage sludge has been shown to contain flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceutical residues, phthalates, industrial solvents, resistant pathogens, heavy metals and perfluorinated compounds, which can bioaccumulate in soil.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Democracy Now