by Noah Siegel
Have you ever wondered what happens to the water you use after washing the dishes, taking a shower, or flushing the toilet? GreenHomeNYC visited the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to learn how the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) sustainably handles wastewater treatment. Our tour was led by LaToya Anderson, the Science and Environmental Protection Educator for the NYC DEP.
As the largest of NYC’s 14 wastewater treatment facilities, Newtown Creek handles an impressive 310 million gallons of wastewater every day, and up to 620 million on a rainy day. As we approached the site, the first thing we noticed were the glistening, futuristic digester “eggs”. Since 2010, these alien-esque digesters have become an iconic piece of the Brooklyn cityscape, especially when illuminated with bright blue LEDs in the evening.
Inside the digesters, a biological process called “anaerobic digestion” takes place. Bacteria breaks down “sludge”, the organic material removed from our sewage. For this process to take place, the digesters are kept at 98°F and are completely sealed to create an oxygen-free environment. In total, these digesters can hold 24 million gallons of sludge at any given time.
Creating Biogas through Wastewater Treatment
A by-product of this digestion process is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Instead of being released into the environment, the plant captures this biogas on-site to power Newtown Creek’s boilers. Currently, the wastewater facility produces a surplus of biogas. DEP is working with National Grid to supply the excess biogas as natural gas to the grid, providing heat to approximately 5,200 Brooklyn homes.
At the height of the tour, we ascended 42 meters up to the catwalk connecting the tops of the eight eggs. In addition to a beautiful view of the Manhattan skyline, we could see inside a digester through a plexi-glass window. While the sludge is not as glamorous as solar panels and wind turbines, the bacteria inside of these tanks are also producing renewable energy!
The wastewater treatment process requires sodium hypochlorite, the same chemical in household bleach, to disinfect the water before it is released into the East River. While the amount is minimal (typically just 9 gallons per 1 million gallons of water), DEP is investigating ways of dechlorinating the wastewater before it’s released into the surrounding waterways. At the current levels, the disinfected water has enough oxygen to support marine life and thus poses no immediate risk. Still, DEP is committed to alternative methods to avoid any long-term environmental effects.
A Few Surprises from Our Tour
First, and most surprising, there is no foul smell at the facility. Even as we stood atop 12 million gallons of sludge, the air was as fresh as ever. This speaks to the well designed and maintained treatment system, and DEP’s ability to maintain a positive environment for Greenpoint’s surrounding residential community.
Second, Newtown Creek processes wastewater in just 6-8 hours. That means you can shower and flush in the morning, go to work, and be assured that by the time you get home, your water was effectively treated.
Third, treating 310 million gallons of water each day is no cheap task. While visiting the control room, we learned that Newtown Creek requires 14 megawatt-hours of energy every single day. That amount of energy could power over 1,500 studio apartments.
Lastly, Newtown Creek’s sustainability does not end with its energy-producing treatment process. DEP also has a nature walk on-site, and has installed a number of green roofs to reduce rainwater runoff entering the sewage system. Anderson also mentioned other green infrastructure in NYC worth exploring, such as Sponge Park in Gowanus, Sol Lain on the Lower East Side, and the Blue Green Roof at PS 118 in Queens.
What Can We Do?
Anderson shared two key actions we can take to help maintain our wastewater system. First, don’t throw your cooking grease down the drain. Grease accumulates and clogs our pipes, leading to backflow and costly maintenance. Cook with grease, enjoy your french fries and stir fry, but throw the excess into the garbage. Second, don’t flush “flushable” wipes. While companies have been advertising wipes as flushable, DEP has found they are not breaking down as advertised and add to pipe clogs.
The Road Ahead
For many sustainability folks, it can be overwhelming at times to consider the many drastic infrastructure improvements needed to support a cleaner, safer, and more livable environment for future generations. The DEP’s dedication to sustainability at Newtown Creek shows what can be accomplished when an organization uses innovation to turn an infrastructure challenge into a power-generating opportunity.
Want to take a deeper dive into the treatment process? Check out this information from the DEP.