A Clean Well-Lighted Place

February 20th, 2013

While I wouldn’t say I have a full-blown phobia of sewage, I have spent an uncomfortable amount of time thinking about it. There are just so many of us! What happens to all the poop once we flush the toilet? This thought bubbles up regularly and sometimes I just can’t stop thinking about it.

This may have started because of a goldfish. You see, I wasn’t allowed to have pets as a kid. I begged and pleaded for a cat, but my parents said cats were too much work and that they’d get stuck cleaning up after the cat, feeding the cat. I swore that wouldn’t be the case. And I meant it! But no. No cat for me. (Now that I have kids of my own, I know they were probably right. They would have gotten stuck doing everything.)

But finally, after years of begging, my mom let me get a goldfish. And I loved that goldfish. I talked to it; I tried to pet it. It was my pet. That goldfish had the most devoted, doting parent ever.

Well, eventually my goldfish died. And my mom told me it was time to flush it down the toilet.

The toilet? Why the toilet? The idea disturbed me at first. But then my seven-year-old brain began to make sense of it.

My fish couldn’t walk to heaven. My fish would have to swim there. And our toilet was probably the most direct route. It never occurred to me to put it in the creek 50 yards from our house. No. The toilet seemed like the most logical way for a fish to get to heaven.

So we flushed my pet fish down the toilet. And I was sad. I cried. I said a prayer. My fish was on its way to heaven.

Later, I pooped. And as I flushed the toilet, I thought about my fish and how it had traveled that very same route earlier.

What if my fish hadn’t made it to heaven yet? And how did my poop know NOT to go to heaven? What if my poop bumps into my dead goldfish on its way into heaven?

I started to cry. My poor goldfish had been run over by shit.

Yeah. It could have started with the fish. Or maybe it’s just the way I am. Maybe it’s in line with my fear of landfills, embalming dead people, and individually wrapped slices of processed cheese. For whatever the reason may be, the idea of living overtop, next to, below, surrounded by pipes full of feces, urine and vomit has often troubled me.

Like right now, I’m sitting in a massive apartment building and poop is coursing its way through it like blood through veins. We have built a cardiovascular system into every modern building around the world, a system whose only purpose is the transportation of poop and urine from a smaller pipe, into a larger one. Eventually our poop ends up all together, moving into an even bigger artery on its way to a massive plant where it’s changed and cleaned and then pushed back out again.

I have spent far too much time thinking about this. Far more time than the average person spends thinking about plumbing and the transportation of feces.

A few weeks ago, I saw that our local Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant was giving three tours for Valentine’s Day. You had to RSVP and you had to do so fast as it was likely to meet maximum capacity within a few hours. And it did. But not before I nabbed a spot. I needed to put this fear to rest. This visit would either calm my nerves, or I’d end up institutionalized.

So last Thursday I bundled up and headed out into the cold to tour the local sewage treatment plant. I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be disturbing and upsetting? Would I leave wishing I could change the world, rid it of human waste, litter, used condoms, the Gowanus Canal and bloodied tampons? Or would I feel better?

Suffice it to say I have a great deal more respect and faith in sewage treatment and how our waste is treated after it leaves our toilet. I am no longer afraid of the unknown.

Now, I won’t bore you with every minute detail—believe me, I could! But I would like to share a bit. So bear with me as I paraphrase a 45-minute lecture coupled with slides, told to me by an expert.

For starters, they use our poop to clean our poop! It’s true! Yesterday’s poop is used to clean today’s, and this continues every day. Basically, all the “good” bacteria and waste from our poop is starved and added to new waste. Yesterday’s bacteria eats most of the “bad stuff” from the new poop and, fat and happy, it then sinks to the bottom. That is scraped off and taken away. The remaining bacteria that didn’t eat enough (very little), and is left floating in the water, is killed with a scant 9 gallons of bleach.

The fat guys that sink to the bottom are scraped from the bottom of the tanks. That scum is the consistency of pea soup. Half of that is mixed with the next day’s poop, the other half is sent to a centrifuge of sorts, which turns it into a solid and that is later destroyed.

It’s a truly organic, relatively clean process. Once the treated water is flushed out again, at the end of the treatment, 94% of the waste is stripped from the water. The remaining is sent back out into our waterways, which are capable of handling/treating that.

They test the water three times a day, all over the city. They want to make sure they’re doing their job. And they are. The rivers are the cleanest they’ve been in 100 years. I was super happy to hear that.

Granted, problems arise, and that has to do with rain. The more rain, the more runoff and they aren’t able to handle it all. Here is where a relatively awesome system fails; but it’s not their fault! The problem is, the sewers collect EVERYTHING from rain, to trash, to your spit and gum and cigarette butts. The more rain, the harder it is for them to handle all the water and therefore trash that comes in from the many streets. So, they have a backlog and most of the time that means trash runneth over. And I’ve seen that firsthand in the East River after a massive rainstorm. (Only twice! They do a pretty great job and are constantly looking to make it perfect.)

Our guide talked about the next step, which would be to build more and more rooftop gardens to collect the rainwater. Rainwater is clean. He has no use for the rain.

“I only want your waste.” He said.

He covered everything from the history of sewage treatment, to what he’d like to see done one day to make it even better. He was charming, knowledgeable and there was a great deal more laughter than one might assume.

We were given so much information, valuable, intriguing information. And as much as I’d like to share everything with you, it’d be pretty boring in the retelling. But I would like to share a few facts that I found pretty great:

  • Those umbrellas women used back in the day, the pretty ones associated with keeping sun out of their eyes, they weren’t designed to protect them from the sun. They carried them originally to protect themselves from the urine being tossed out of apartments. This was before we had indoor plumbing.
  • Back in the day, boats used to come into NYC waterways and sit for a bit in order to kill all the barnacles from the bottom of the boat. Our waters were that polluted. (This saved them money from having to strip the boats themselves.)
  • Their busiest time is roughly 20 minutes after the Super Bowl ends.
  • The biggest issue they’re having right now is with people flushing medications. (You’re supposed to take them to a pharmacy.) The other problem is with BABY WIPES. Don’t flush baby wipes. They are horrible for the system. (I was guilty of this but will never, ever do it again.)

Lastly, I interviewed three workers while visiting. I like doing this. I feel like you get the best idea about how a place really works if you talk to the people who do the work.

I talked to a younger guy who commutes from Staten Island. He loves his job and has been there for 10 years. He doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

“It’s a really tough commute.” He told me. “But it’s ok. It’s worth it.”

He told me that on the Fourth of July they have the best view.

I talked to an older gentleman who had been there for 21 years, working for the city for 40. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and truly enjoyed his job.

I spent a good 30 minutes talking to a 25-year-veteran of the plant. We stood in the glass walkway, overtop the sewage tanks overlooking one of the best views of the city I’ve ever seen. I asked him if he enjoyed working there. He told me he did.

“What do you like best?” I asked him.

“The people. And I love my boss, Jimmy. He’s a really great guy.”

Jimmy was the guy in charge, the one who gave us the lecture. The one with the biting sense of humor.

He pointed out all the old tanks, the ones they don’t use anymore as most all of the treatment has moved underground or is contained.

“When I first started here, oooooo boy! Did it ever stink! We would have to shower before heading home. It was awful. You could not get the smell out of certain material. It stunk so bad. As a new guy, if you could last 5 minutes without puking, you were considered a superhero. I only puked once.” He laughed. “Now everything is covered. So it doesn’t smell anymore.”

He pointed toward Northern Manhattan, right to where the treated water gets pushed back out. He told me about the biggest catastrophe and his worst day on the job. I pointed to where I live. He pointed to where he lives. We stood there in silence.

“I love coming up here when it snows.” He said. “It’s amazing here when it snows.”

And just like that, I realized that I had completely forgotten we were standing atop thousands upon thousands of gallons of human waste, above the very thing, the heart of what I’d thought about for a great deal of my life. And just like that, it didn’t seem so strange to me anymore.

All three men I spoke to last Thursday deal with millions of gallons of feces each and every day and they really like their jobs. I know of at least 20 people right now with office jobs who are miserable.

I shook his hand, thanked him as best I could, and told him I would remember that day for a long, long time. (I meant it.) And then I headed back down to the street, hundreds of feet below where we stood overlooking a thousand of people absentmindedly pooping, oblivious as to where it all goes once they flush.

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10 Comments on “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”

  1. Meghan said at 11:44 am on February 20th, 2013:

    Thanks, Mihow! This was enlightening to read. I’m glad people like you are around to dig deeper for information and details about things that so many of us take for granted. I’m glad I stopped by your site today and had the pleasure of reading your story. I will also stop flushing baby wipes down the toilet (I do try not to, and chide my husband when he does).

  2. kimc said at 11:58 am on February 20th, 2013:

    you are awesome.

    paper towel too…i keep having to get on my husbands case about baby wipes and paper towel ;-)

  3. wendyr said at 12:24 pm on February 20th, 2013:

    Awesome post! I really enjoyed this AND I learned something. Win-win! I occasionally get all weirded out by the idea of sewage too, so it is good to know a bit about the actual processing of our waste.

  4. Sue said at 1:44 pm on February 20th, 2013:

    So are you going to be sending them lolli’poop’s as a “thank you”? ;)

    I would have never thought to flush baby wipes! Guess I’m in the minority! Cool tour. Would love to see the city from that vantage. Glad you had fun!

  5. Molly said at 8:05 pm on February 20th, 2013:

    Super cool post! This is the kind I wonder about but never actually do anything about (except to look it up on Wikipedia, ha).

  6. Melhow said at 6:07 pm on February 21st, 2013:

    I took an environmental science class in high school. We got to tour the waste treatment plant. It was the old school kind. Not. pleasant. at. all. Seriously, you could not have forgotten that you were surrounded by poo. That, however, looks like a modern art museum instead of a treatment facility. Very cool!

  7. Stuart said at 12:25 pm on February 22nd, 2013:

    I work ‘behind the scenes’ of society (a bit) like this, and alongside people whose job it is to think of sewage and drainage on a daily basis, and I like knowing what’s going on…how it works and fits together. Not specifically the poop stuff, but just…generally. I design the buildings you so poetically describe as “a cardiovascular system into every modern building around the world”…I do the lungs, not the bowels.

    Major kudos to you to seeking this opportunity out and investigating something you wanted to know about. Also, I think I have to go and read the Hemingway story of the same title, now.

  8. mihow said at 2:38 pm on February 22nd, 2013:

    Stuart: That is awesome. I wish I had the insight you do.

    Melhow: They take pride in the building, which was designed specifically with sewage in mind. (The form follows function concept.) You should see pictures of it at night! They light them up because (to quote our guide) “we’re very proud of our tanks!”

  9. George said at 2:17 pm on February 25th, 2013:

    I’ve been to a center like that, it was fascinating. But not at all this beautiful.
    (And a little disgusting, we saw things not covered.)

  10. Erica said at 5:56 pm on February 27th, 2013:

    Awesome! Now I’m going to see if my city has a waste management tour.


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