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Milwaukee's own Milorganite: 95 years of greener pastures

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Posted at 5:42 AM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 07:54:34-04

MILWAUKEE — One of Milwaukee’s largest, and oldest recycling operations is celebrating 95 years in business. We’re not talking bottles and cans.

Milorganite is a natural fertilizer produced from a byproduct of the sewage treatment process. It’s not only feeding lawns and gardens across America, but it’s also keeping waste out of landfills and bringing taxes down.

“Most people tend to have the misconception that Milorganite is pelletized human waste in a bag. That’s exactly what it isn’t,” explained Jaime Staufenbeil. She’s a former golf course superintendent who now works as an agronomist for Milorganite.

“It’s microorganisms,” she says. “It’s the microorganisms that eat all the organic matter, eat all the wastewater. We take those microbes, those bugs, and we dry them. It’s essentially dried microorganisms. It’s not pelletized human waste in a bag.”

When sewage arrives at the Jones Island treatment plant in Milwaukee, the solid waste is filtered out first. It’s in the third of four phases of treatment that the microorganisms are introduced to fully liquid waste. Staufenbeil describes them as being like the video game, Pac-Man, going through and eating biological material.

When the Pac-Mans are full, they’re filtered out and then go through their own process to become Milorganite. “We're going to take them, and we're going to press the water out of them, and we're going to throw them in the dryer, and we create a granular, a pellet, like you see in the bag right now,” Staufenbeil detailed.

In a huge building on Jones Island, the microbes run through a multistage process where the water is squeezed out and bonding agents are added. Now reduced to a thin, cake-like consistency, the material goes to giant, spinning ovens. It’s baked at 1,200 degrees reducing it to pellet form and also killing any pathogens that may be present. Further refining creates consistently sized pellets, and then the finished product can be loaded directly onto rail cars or bagged up for shipping across the country.

The organic, nitrogen fertilizer has been popular with golf courses since it was created in 1926. It gained popularity as a “goof-proof” fertilizer on a residential scale in the 1990s. Staufenbeil says homeowners like how easy it is to use, “There's no chemical salts in Milorganite like a synthetic fertilizer would have. It's not going to burn anything. So even if you, like you said if you overlap, it's not going to burn anything. You're not going to stripe up your lawn. Especially, too, for first-time homeowners who aren't sure how to start up a lawn care program, Milorganite is the perfect option for that.”

Staufenbeil recommends 4 treatments a year, following the holiday schedule. Apply in spring around Memorial Day, followed by applications on Independence Day, Labor Day, and a final feeding before the freeze, sometime around Thanksgiving. “And if you are on a budget and you only want to apply one application a year, that fall application is the most important,” Staufenbeil advises. “You're going to feed the lawn a little bit going into winter. Once the soil temperature gets too cold, that product just stays essentially dormant in the soil until next spring.”

Regardless of its benefit to lawns and gardens, this nearly century-old recycling program continues to have a remarkable environmental and economic impact. Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District produces about 47,000 tons of Milorganite each year. That material would otherwise end up in landfills taking up space and costing taxpayers disposal fees. Now instead of paying to get rid of it, taxpayers can profit from it. MMSD reported nearly $12 million in 2020 revenue from Milorganite sales.

For more tips on how to use Milorganite on your lawn or garden, click here.

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