Posted tagged ‘myth’

Greenwashing Synagro: Secretive Corporate Giant Has Got the Private Poop

July 17, 2009

following up on P’s recent post about privatizing sewage…

I live near Detroit, so this year has been a doozy. Not only is Detroit (and all of SE Michigan) hit hard by unemployment, foreclosure, restructuring of the automobile industry and long-standing poverty, neglect and racism, but it also recently lost its mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and city council woman Monica Conyers, both of them because of corruption. Beyond the blight, Detroit is dealing with regime change, corruption and political instability.

Conyers’ mistake was taking bribes from the Synagro corporation, the nation’s largest waste disposal company, who wanted a 25-year, $1 billion contract for handling Detroit’s municipal sewage. In what the local media have taken to calling the “sludge scandal” ( – go ahead, google it), Synagro tried to recruit allies on the Detroit city council through bribery. Conyers is the only one so far who has copped to bribery charges, but the palm-greasing probably also included a 2003 junket to Hawaii to see a boxing match with Kwame Kilpatrick (for more, see this story in Detroit Business Magazine Crain’s).

Watching the shit hit the fan in Michigan has been sobering. But its also sobering to learn that Synagro has been greasing politicians’ palms since 1992, and has spiraled downwards into a mire of sludge and PR which threatens government and corporate transparency, health and safety, the environment, our food supply, and effective environmental regulation.

The Backstory:

1988’s Ocean Dumping Act made New York City’s previous waste disposal proceedure (dumping into the Atlantic) illegal and obsolete. By 1993, the city had set up the world’s largest solid waste recycling program, the New York Organic Fertilizer Co., owned and operated by Synagro. Here the relevant palm to grease was Alfonse D’Amato’s. The NYOFC produces Class A organic fertilizer – carefully sanitized with heat to kill microorganisms. But even this highest grade of treated sludge in the land may contain undocumented levels of plastics, heavy metals and other industrial residues – not very well regulated by the EPA, freshly excoriated by the Bush Administration (see “Sludge and Scandal,” 2004).

In 2000, the Houston Business Journal noted that Synagro became one of the world’s largest waste management corporations. The SEC’s disclosure of all Synagro’s subsidiaries is pretty sobering. This Texas company now has subsidiaries in Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Canada and Iraq.

Everywhere Synagro goes, there is trouble from the locals.

In 1992, communities in Oklahoma and Alabama organized to reject New York City waste being used as fertilizer in their regions. As Joel Bliefuss wrote in his truly muckraking piece, “The Sludge Hits the Fan”:

In 1992, the Water Environment Federation, describing itself as a “not-for-profit technical and educational organization” whose “mission is to preserve and enhance the global water environment,” received a $300,000 grant from the EPA to “educate the public” about the “beneficial uses” of sludge. “The campaign will tie in with the Federation’s ongoing efforts to promote use of the term `biosolids,’ ” reported the Federation’s December 1992 newsletter.

“Beneficial use” is the industry euphemism for the practice of spreading sludge on farm fields. Even before the current push, sludge has been applied to soil for decades. Milwaukee’s sewage sludge has been dried and sold nationally for almost 70 years as “Milorganite,” a lawn and garden fertilizer. In 1982, the state of Maryland banned Milorganite after it was found to contain high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal. In recent years, other cities have followed Milwaukee’s example offering varieties such as “Nu-Earth” from Chicago, “Nitrohumus” from Los Angeles, and “Hou-actinite” from Houston.

Milorganite and other commercially-marketed sludge products usually carry labels warning that they should not be applied on food-producing soil. But most consumers and journalists are unaware that tens of thousands of acres, from Midwest dairy land to Florida citrus groves and California fruit orchards, are already routinely “fertilized” with byproducts of industrial and human sewage. In theory, this approach harkens back to the time-honored natural system of composting. Of course, the organic farmers of previous centuries didn’t have to worry that their “night soil” contained a synergistic soup of dioxins, asbestos, DDT and lead that could contaminate themselves, their groundwater, and their food.

It is, in other words, quite a difficult situation. Under cover of producing environmentally responsible recycled waste (a rather progressive, sophisticated organic composting program), Synagro helps cities and companies produce waste which is actually a mix of human waste, food waste, garbage, and industrial waste – whatever goes into the sewer. As Bleifuss points out, “The environmentally sound approach would have been to develop separate treatment systems for human and industrial waste” Yeah…but we didn’t do that. And so he highlights the non-organic, non-fertilizing parts of sludge for his readers:

  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs);
  • Chlorinated pesticides — DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, lindane, mirex, kepone, 2,4,5-T, 2,4-D;
  • Chlorinated compounds such as dioxins;
  • Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons;
  • Heavy metals — arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury;
  • Bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasitic worms, fungi; and
  • Miscellaneous — asbestos, petroleum products, industrial solvents.

Do you want these in your food? I don’t. Do they maybe help account for all the cases of e-coli in packaged produce recently? Could be. In 2002, Synagro acquired Earthwise Organics and Earthwise Trucking, which most likely use Class A organic fertilizer like the stuff produced in New York City. So should we trust that what we’re getting from Earthwise Organics is really and purely organic?

Since the 1990s, communities in the Bronx have been organizing to protest the hazards and stench of the New York operation. In 2002 Synagro settled out of court with the family of Shayne Conner, a New Hampshire man who died in his sleep a month after the spread of such fertilizer on a neighboring field. In Riverside County, Calif., a Synagro plant closed Dec. 31, 2008 after years of complaints about what residents called headache-inducing, property-value-sucking smells, about 50 miles southwest of downtown LA.

In the Bush era, as the EPA eased up on regulation, Synagro captured a larger and larger share of national and international waste management markets. More and more businesses and municipalities contributed their waste. This waste was then quietly spirited away by Synagro. Synagro not only turns waste into fertilizer (a great idea), but also turns fertilizer into a hiding place for many mysterious industrial residues (a diabolical idea).

In 2007, Synagro was bought out by the giant holding company The Carlyle Group. Carlyle, it seems, recognized Synagro’s power to dispose of waste and keep it quiet at the same time. The buyout, they announced, would be accompanied by making Synagro a private company. In Dec. 2007 SEIU protested, challenging Carlyle to disclose information about potential health hazards of using treated sludge to fertilize crops (SEIU Press Release). SEIU convincingly argued that taking the company private would be an excuse for tight-lipped Cheney-esque non-disclosure. They worried that the terrible secrets in sludge might never be revealed.

Because the EPA and Synagro aren’t too concerned about whether treated sludge is safe, very justified public outcry has set back the long-term prospects of convincing Americans of the safety of organic waste recycling. The public is scared of sludge now, and with good reason – but they should not fear eating food fertilized by their own waste. The key for everyone’s own food safety is to know the difference between Class B and Class A Fertilizers, and to know the difference between organic and conventional produce.

As Bliefuss wrote,

Currently, “certified organic” farmers are prohibited from using sludge on their crops, but the sludge industry is pushing for acceptance by organic farming organizations, and this will be a battleground for industry PR in the future. The amount of farm acreage dedicated to organic farming is currently very small. However, said Brian Baker of California Certified Organic Farmers, “imagine what great PR it would be for the sewage sludge promoters to say that sludge is so clean it can even be certified organic — what a way to `greenwash’ sewage sludge!”

And there you have it! Greenwashing: the insidious PR move of hiding potential environmental waste under the mantle of organic sustainability.

Synagro helps us see all of the different things that can be privatized: it privatized its annual statements in 2007, it privatized the waste disposal business, on the vanguard of de-regulation, it privatized waste itself, it privatized information or knowledge about the chemical contents of that waste. Almost anything can be commodified and privatized – invent a new market out of thin air and someone will usually enclose it, quick.

Worst of all, the poorest people are usually the ones who suffer, albeit in various ways. In the Bronx, the poorest New Yorkers are afflicted with stench and mysterious questions about heath and safety. In south-west Detroit, the people are afflicted by the incinerators that Synagro would have replaced, had the dirty contract with the city gone through. In New York, the people suffer because Synagro is “working hard” (whatever that means), while in Detroit, they suffer because Synagro is “hardly working.”

Propriety and Myth

May 10, 2009

wolverine copies

In both of our previous two posts, we’ve hit tangentially on this potential dichotomy of value systems: one overwhelmingly commercial, the other grounded in communities. This distinction no doubt over-simplifies the relationship between commercial interactions and, well, any other type of interaction, but it nevertheless seems fairly intuitive and good area for further exploration.

As a starting point for this investigation, I want to talk about the phenomenon of comic books being adapted into blockbuster movies. Even discounting the long-running Superman and Batman television shows, there is a relatively long history of interaction between these art forms. The first of the Superman movies came out in 1978 and the most recent in 2006. Tim Burton’s Batman arrived in 1989 and spawned a decade’s worth of sequels, varying in artistic merit, up though last years The Dark Night. The Batman franchise also spun off a Catwoman flick. The X-Men trilogy began in 2000 and has now spun of the first of several sub-franchises with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which has itself spun off the recently-announced Deadpool movie. In addition to these, several “more serious” comic works have been brought to the big screen in recent years, including Frank Miller’s Sin City and Alan Moore‘s From Hell, V For Vendetta and The Watchmen. Now there are plans to adapt more contemporary and less-widely-known (but terrific) comic narratives such as Y: The Last Man.

The proliferation of these movies speaks to the fact that Hollywood has tapped into an expansive universe of characters and narratives that lots of people are eager to see retold. On the other hand, there is a certain tension that arises with the release of almost any of these movies wherein fans of the comic book complain that the movie has strayed too far from the spirit of the original work. Sometimes, the charge is often that the movie has sapped the original story of is more complexities, its moral ambiguities, is darker elements. Other times, the much-caricatured comic book enthusiast is just outraged that the details of a familiar story have been thoroughly mixed up. In either case, there is a sense that in trying to appeal to the widest possible audience, the movie-makers have abandoned artistic integrity in favor of commercial success.

It seems safe to say that there is a sense of betrayal here. But betrayal of what? A comics fan might say it’s a betrayal of the authors’ original vision – a betrayal of the work itself somehow. I would argue instead that it is the perceived betrayal of the relationship between the original work and the audience. The pinch of this betrayal is the loss of authority suffered by the specific system of meanings the reader took from the original text.

The entertainment company buys rights to produce a story and invests a significant amount of money in producing a version of that story. In order to encourage substantial profits on that investment, there will be a marketing campaign to support the film, which will establish (accurately or not) this iteration as an authoritative version within the narrative tradition from which it draws its original appeal.

In the case of comics, these stories present an easy invitation to comparison with classical mythologies. Not having done much reading on mythology or literary theory, I’m not really equipped to make the argument as to similarities and difference between the way communities tend to interact with these two types of narratives. Certainly one might point out that the processes of production are entirely different; particularly relevant for this conversation, the fact that comics originated in a commercial context while classical mythologies did not. However, I do think one could reasonably argue that the larger-than-life content found in both classical mythology and comics are prime material for popular re-imaginings. A singular mythic narrative (classical or comic) diverges exponentially into personal, non-commercial understandings.

And yet, when this media company purchases rights to the original story, it receives both legal permission to produce a cultural product, but also some sort of official legitimacy in presenting this commercial narrative as the authoritative version. The longstanding relationship of the fan base with the original narrative grants those fans no such official authority. This is a clear instance of the conflict between commercial and non-commercial value systems in cultural production. Both systems require an investment in the narrative, either commercial or emotional, but only one of those investments receives legal sanction in terms of the control of that narrative.

This question of who can grant “rights” to popular mythologies is key to understanding the break between commercial and community-based value systems. Can a commercial exchange somehow grant a corporation the right to produce an “authoritative” Superman narrative, or do the countless pre-existing personal relationships with this character and his narrative setting negate any claims to such authority, regardless of the legal legitimacy that copyright provides?