The Mid Atlantic Biosolids Association (MABA) recently reported on a three-part, “so-that’s-how-it’s-done!” video presentation outlining the cycle of human waste management in New York City. The video, produced by VICE Media LLC, is entitled, “You Don’t Know S…,” and tracks the human sewage waste output of the residents of Manhattan’s West Side from flush to flow. Despite the scatological title (and annoying overuse of the word throughout the presentation), these videos do provide the general public with an idea of what happens to human waste after the flush.
The “investigative reporter” who appears on the videos is a bit over-the-top and seems determined to dramatize the process and act like this is amazing news and was a big, dark secret until now! But wastewater treatment plants (now known as “water resource recovery facilities”) have been processing human waste for decades. They were engineered for this purpose. For thousands of years, human waste was left to decompose on its own or was used as is for fertilizer. However, as cities grew, so did the need to process large quantities of waste material. Wastewater treatment plants were developed to mimic and speed up the process of bacterial breakdown of the organic material in waste. But today’s plants go further than simple decomposition. Since 1992, when ocean dumping was banned, the wastewater treatment sector has grown and continues to develop new methods for dealing with our waste, turning raw sewage into reusable biosolids and clean water. Treated biosolids are often disposed in landfills, but that is not a sustainable practice. So other methods of treatment are used to turn biosolids residuals into various types of products that can be used as fertilizer and, in some cases, fuel.
The video shows the steps that must be taken to process waste, including transporting waste via municipal infrastructure to treatment plants, separating liquids from solids, and the subsequent treatment of each of these products. In cities, this can be a major engineering and logistical feat. The VICE video follows the sewage sludge as it is pumped to, and then processed in, a new state-of-the-art, $4B treatment plant at Newtown Creek in Brooklyn. The sludge is then transported by boat to a dewatering plant on Ward’s Island. Here, the sludge undergoes further processing into wastewater and biosolids that are then available for beneficial use as a fertilizer. The videos concentrated on the use of biosolids as fertilizer and didn’t explore the other creative uses for biosolids.
It seems that the shock value of a four-letter-word for human waste was used to attract an audience other than those in the wastewater sector in order to then explain the treatment process. It’s unfortunate that this language is used since this video could be a valuable educational tool for schools to begin the dialogue about issues surrounding our waste production and how we are handling it. Biosolids use is the ultimate in recycling and discussions of waste treatment and disposal could easily be incorporated into an environmental curriculum. It’s important to make students realize the critical nature of sewage treatment. Human waste is a resource that is never-ending. We will need engineers in the future to develop new ways of treatment and disposal. The aging infrastructure in our cities is going to need constant upgrading and, with the average age of workers in the wastewater treatment sector at 55, new jobs will be coming available. It would be a benefit to show students that careers in the waste management field are not only essential to the welfare and health of all communities, they will pretty much guarantee job security.
Judging from the comments, the reaction to these videos was favorable overall, but often with reservations. Waste treatment tends to be a hidden process, not one that is obvious to most people or even talked about. We flush and forget about it. Some commenters expressed a need for the general public to be aware of the consequences of our actions and take responsibility for recycling our waste products, whatever they may be. The fact that someone actually told this story and showed the steps of the processing of human waste was praised by many teachers as an important educational step. While some comments wholeheartedly endorsed the treatment process and beneficial use of biosolids as illustrated in the videos, others were conditionally supportive, expressing concerns about the presence of hormones and pharmaceutical products in a material that is being used as a fertilizer. The public awareness of these types of emerging contaminants (EC’s) may need to be addressed by the biosolids sector. Viewers asked questions about the presence of heavy metals, hormones, contraceptives, bacteria, and viruses, among other things. With a rise in public awareness comes a sector need to explore and explain what is being done to evaluate the impacts of and, if necessary, eliminate these EC’s. What was once out of sight is becoming more transparent so those in the sector must be prepared to answer questions that arise as a result of this growing awareness.
Other areas of concern expressed in viewers’ comments were: that Europe is more stringent in its regulations than the US; where biosolids that can’t be reused end up; whether or not biosolids can be used as fuel; what happens to waste in countries (or states) who can’t afford wastewater treatment plants; whether we can capture methane during the treatment process; and where the waste from airplanes and ships goes.
In the end, how biosolids are ultimately used will depend on the treatment process. There are very strict regulations regarding what is allowed to be present in biosolids before land application.
If nothing else, the video will help raise awareness about the crucial yet complicated nature of waste management.
Here are the links to view the three parts of the video: