6 Things Only A Sewage Treatment Plant Knows About Your Town
The magic of the modern world is that you don't have to see where your shit goes after you flush it. But your excrement isn't immediately whisked away by gnomes or teleported directly into deep space -- it heads to the wastewater treatment plant, where actual human beings have to deal with it. This is even harder than it sounds.
We talked with someone who works in the laboratory of a wastewater treatment plant to learn the truth about what happens in the halls of wet and brown. She told us ...
You're Creating Massive Clumps Of Grease That Can Destroy Everything
First off, good news: I'm not going to tell you to give up toilet paper -- not that you would anyway. I mean, sure, huge swaths of the world use just water, which kills fewer trees and actually gets your butthole clean -- but our sewage system can handle toilet paper just fine. As for any other product labeled "flushable," well ... that's a different story.
One that deserves a Poolitzer.
In marketing, the word "flushable" is kind of like the word "natural." No one regulates it, and it means just about nothing. You'll see flushable baby wipes or even flushable diapers, and their ads sometimes show the things harmlessly breaking apart after they go down the drain. But they need to be sturdier than toilet paper (which truly dissociates), so they use a lot of degradable plastics. In our plant's machinery, those products recombine into one giant plasticy mass, like The Blob. And that blobby monster has to be removed manually. I've personally had to sample this monster (that means grabbing a bit for testing, not licking and tasting it), and it was such a hard mass that I had to bash it with the sampling stick like a baseball bat to break it apart.
Another species of blobby monster comes from the fats, oils, and grease in wastewater, which we refer to by the appropriately blobby acronym FOG. You might regularly pour hot grease down the sink (say, from draining ground beef from the same tacos that give you diarrhea to flush later), and it's liquid when it rolls off your pan. But it loses temperature quickly and will solidify in your drains. So not only will you need a visit from a surly plumber in the not-too-distant future, some of the FOG makes its way to the sewers and builds up in interceptor lines. If the problem is bad enough, we all see terrible things we call "fatbergs," which are a nightmare for sewer maintenance.
We're talking "dungeon beast" nightmare, not "public speaking" nightmare.
Fatbergs are chunks of grease that trap other waste, and those not-flushable flushables I mentioned make them even worse -- the two materials like to glom together, and the wet wipes make fatbergs harder and more robust. Every major city deals with fatbergs of some kind. One time in London, a 10-ton fatberg got as big as a school bus and broke the line right apart. Why hasn't Roland Emmerich made a disaster movie about that?
You Wouldn't Believe What We Find
So, what does sewage look like once it reaches us? It's not a bunch of turds floating about in a stream, if that's what you're picturing. Solid waste breaks up pretty quickly in the sewer lines. By the time it gets to us, it's this uniform gray-green stenchwater with bits of toilet paper and other foreign bodies scattered around. I see a lot of corn. And glitter, for some reason.
I'm fine with poop, but I have no idea how to clean this.
We see other weird stuff, and we catch and filter it out using a bar screen. If you take a solo field trip to your local plant, you might well find a display cabinet showing off various items they've nabbed. There'll always be some old coins, a somewhat gaudy ring, Happy Meal-style toys. At our plant, we totaled up the money collected from the bar screen one day. It came to $75. Once, someone flushed a driver's license, and I heard a plant employee found it, washed it, and returned it to the owner.
Try a little harder next time, witness protection.
The absolute strangest thing I've heard about was a live python. Their plant operator retrieved the little guy, checked up at the veterinarian, and kept it as a pet. Yes, it survived the trip, like those alligators that some swear live under New York. Flushed fish die because of the high ammonia concentrations and low dissolved oxygen in the water, but snakes breathe air, so the toxic water is no issue (although the high levels of hydrogen sulfide in the sewer would not have made it that easy for it to breathe, either). The snake's slow metabolism probably helped it respire less and go into a sort of stasis mode during this process. Again -- where's the Pixar movie about that little guy's journey? Think of all that he has seen.
Now, I supposed we should get this out of the way ...
Yes, Wastewater Scientists Get Covered In Poop
We shouldn't. We're not trudging through the sewers every day -- that job's reserved for sewer workers and for video game protagonists seeking entry into secret lairs. But a poop shower happens to everyone, eventually. We call this each employee's baptism. Sometimes it's "mixed liquor" (the term for the secondary-process liquid made up of all the bacteria that we feed your ammonia). Sometimes it's sludge. The lucky ones may skate by with just an effluent bath, which is the final treated water, good enough to release into the river.
Then, we head to the furnace for a baptism by fire.
Mine was when I had to sample dewatered biosolids (also called "cake," which is cute but gross) from underneath the centrifuge. That day, the conditioning of the sludge wasn't at its best, and it was really runny wet cake at the time. I didn't know this, so I was holding my little sample cup under the chute when a huge, wet, sloppy mass of cake shot down at my face. Luckily, I had my mouth closed. That's rule No. 1 for working at a wastewater plant.
In the lab, we always wear safety goggles, gloves, long pants, lab coats, and closed-toe nonslip shoes. If we know we're working with something nasty, we'll use a fume hood and some extra protection like a rubber smock and a face shield. The good folks who drive those septic tank trucks, however, are almost superhuman in their resistance to grossness. I see those guys unloading their trucks; they never wear gloves, and a lot of times I'll catch them eating a sandwich or something, not a foot away from a gushing stream of splashy, spraying, untreated feces. Those guys need to be studied by the CDC, because their immune systems could withstand Ebola, I swear.
I'm NOT saying they are squirming bacteria colonies wearing human suits. That is just a rumor.
And yes, it stinks. When I first started at the plant, there was a septic sample that smelled so bad, I actually ran to the lab sink and threw up. Now, with 10 years of experience in the poop factory, my stomach is a little more impervious to such attacks. I don't mind biosolids. I even often send text photos to my family written out in biosolids (it molds a lot like Play-Doh), or in grosser stuff. Everyone in my family has received a poop-o-gram from me at some point. Here's one I made for you guys:
"Told you Cracked has turned to shit." Wrote your troll comment for you.
And now that we're done playing with strangers' feces, let me relay a valuable piece of advice ...
Please Stop Flushing Your Damn Pills
Lots of people flush drugs down their toilet, and I'm not even talking about the bag of cocaine that you hurriedly flush right before police kick down your door. The logic goes that if you throw your medications in the trash along with your holey socks and credit card statements, Hobo Joe might find them when he pokes through the dumpster, and once he swallows them, he'll get a little too happy. Or, little kids or pets could get into them -- hell, even the FDA advises flushing certain drugs (rare drugs that are potent enough to kill if accidentally taken by the wrong person). But when you flush drugs, they end up in the general water supply and environment, and we have absolutely no way of removing them. Yes, this is a big deal.
You're probably thinking that a couple pills dissolved in oceans of sewage can't possibly have an effect. But when you multiply common prescriptions times the millions of people flushing them, they have a huge impact (how many people do you who know who aren't on at least one medication at the moment?). In some cases, drug concentrations in wastewater are higher than they are in the blood of people taking the medicine. We've already mentioned one of the clearer consequences -- birth control runoff feminizes male fish(!). And that's just from traces of drugs in your pee, not even whole flushed pills.
If Aquaman were real, he'd be on his fourth breast-reduction surgery by now.
Other birth control runoff has been known to kill those fish. Residue of antidepressants in wastewater keep birds from feeding and other drug residues keep amphibians from breeding. Frogs can become intersex. Just from your flushed medication! Then there was the anti-inflammatory drug in India that went rogue after they gave it to cows and killed off 99.9 percent of vultures that pecked bad spots.
So, just throw your drugs away, dammit. If you want to be careful about it, put them in a bag mixed with something undesirable (like used kitty litter or coffee grounds) to ensure no one will sift through the mess. The pills will end up in a landfill, where an impermeable lining separates them from the environment.
Yes, this is actually the more environmentally safe solution.
And speaking of the environmental effects: You know those tiny beads, microplastics, in face wash and stuff? They're bad. Really, really bad. Sewage has all kinds of dissolved and suspended stuff, but most of it settles to the bottom in our dedicated sedimentation tanks. Not microplastics -- they float, they leave our plant intact, they get eaten by wildlife, and they kill.
Your Poo Is Worth More Than Gold
Maybe you've heard about recent plans to extract precious metals from sewage. Gold and silver grabbed the headlines ("Your poop is full of gold!" websites told us, misleadingly), but there's also talk of retrieving technologically important metals like copper and vanadium that come in stuff like shampoo. Well, let me tell you, it's totally possible to salvage all of those from sewage. And yet, that's something sewage plants are just not going to do. That's because the chemicals used to extract metal kill all the bacteria, which is a bad thing -- our system needs that bacteria to turn the poop into something far more valuable: fertilizer.
Brown gold. Texas ... uh, Texas.
Yep, human biosolids are the best fertilizer you could ever find, due to trace amounts of micronutrients (all those "fortified" vitamins in your cereal, stuff like that) that commercial fertilizers lack. Farmers love us! We increase yield, reduce costs, and provide healthier crops. And yet the thought of tomatoes and zucchinis getting that extra zing from human shit really grosses people out for some reason, more so than animal manure. So the sewage-to-cabbage pipeline is sadly left out of the circle of poo that we're all taught about as children. You might be relieved to learn that human food crops are a no-no when using human biosolids -- regulations keep it to animal feed and other indirect crops like that.
Your eating crops aren't eating your craps.
Those biosolids are one product of sewage treatment. The other product is liquid. If a plant discharges to a stream or river (as opposed to the ocean, the biggest diluent on Earth), we have regulations strict enough that the stuff can be immediately sipped up into a drinking water plant. So if Californians today react in horror to "toilet to tap" plans, that's another totally dumb form of disgust. Processing wastewater into drinking water is safe, makes total sense, and already happens in plenty of places worldwide.
We Can Never Shut Down, No Matter What Goes Wrong
Every so often, some factory pours a barrel of pure cancer right into the drains. "This'll show Captain Planet and the Planeteers!" they sneer, and this kind of illegal dumping does in fact screw up the treatment process. When one toxic slug (that's what we call these unhealthy volumes of wastewater) came through the plant, it killed our entire biological process. At that point we lost our ability to remove ammonia and solids, and it all discharged to the river ... because we cannot stop the flow of influent. Not even for a second. Streets and toilets would overflow with sewage if we closed our influent pipes, so it's not an option, ever.
And roaches would swarm up and eat you, probably.
Oh, and it doesn't have to be toxic chemicals. It can be something as innocent as a large load of rags -- one time, illegally dumped shop rags got tangled in the bar screens and created a blockage, causing influent to pour over the channel walls into a facility. Remember, large plants are processing hundreds of millions of gallons a day -- this was a huge problem. Everyone worked like crazy to clear the blockage, while others ran around stopping up every drain that runs to the river, trying to contain it to just the facility grounds. Afterward, the lab tested the river, the impacted soil, just about everything for pathogenic organisms and other contaminants from raw sewage. The results weren't pretty, but everyone did what they could.
If something goes wrong at the plant, we have to go over the place with a clipboard and send all data (both analytical and logistical) to the state, and it is determined whether we're to blame. If we are, we pay millions of dollars in fines. If someone else is, we litigate. If it's an act of God, we get something of a pass. This was the case for plants in Texas recently, and in Colorado during the flood of 2013, when impossibly high water flows overloaded the plant and it was hydraulically impossible to treat the load. Yeah, sometimes Mother Nature gives us more than we could ever calculate, and there's very little we can do -- if your whole plant is underwater, it's a bit difficult to treat the sewage (though there may still be workers there desperately trying to minimize the effects). Do I need to tell you that if you're ever in a flooded area, you should just assume the water you're wading in is contaminated?
So feel free to just poop wherever.
This is also my way of pointing out that us wastewater workers keep mass outbreaks of things like cholera and typhoid away from modern society every single day. So try not to grimace and wipe your hands on the side of your pants after we slap five.
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