For thousands of years, Homo sapiens flocked across continents in pursuit of bird, beast, and fresh water, leaving behind him a trail of gnawed bones and steaming waste. The moment we stopped removing ourselves from that waste, it had to be removed from us. Thus the origins of civilization, thus the glories of Rome, Paris, and Philadelphia. A civilization that cannot escape its own fecal matter is a civilization in trouble—unless, of course, the uneasy relationship between man and his effluents can evolve.
“The first regulations with respect to waste go back to the code of Hammurabi,” said Steve Askew, superintendent of New York’s North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, one of the world’s largest. “You have to bury your waste far from where you sleep.” And he gave me the look. Steve Askew never finished college, but that look had seen to the bottom of things. It was both spooky and intimidating, that particular look of pity and loathing the wise bestow upon the ignorant. He knew something I wanted to know: the ultimate fate of our waste.
“People wake up in the morning, they brush their teeth, flush the toilet,” said Askew. “They think it goes to the center of the earth.”
If you happen to live within one particular 5,100-acre patch of the West Side of Manhattan, instead of going to the center of the earth, your waste flows to Askew’s extraordinary concrete cesspit: twenty-eight concrete acres suspended above more than two thousand concrete caissons sunk into the shallows between the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. Constructed in the 1970s, topped by three swimming pools, a skating rink, and a carousel, North River cost the city a billion dollars, 100 million of which went straight into odor control.
North River is just one of New York City’s fourteen wastewater treatment plants, the first of which opened in 1886, along with the Statue of Liberty. These plants handle every conceivable kind of sewerable waste from the city’s eight million permanent residents, not to mention anything a commuter or a tourist might care to add. They separate the material that comes their way into solid, liquid, and gaseous parts, which they further subdivide into that which must be discarded, that which may be consumed, and that which someone, somewhere, might eventually be able to sell.
The substance that enters North River is mostly water, and the vast majority of that water leaves the plant after not much more than six hours, disinfected to the extent that it can merge inoffensively with the Hudson River. One flush on the Upper West Side at seven in the morning, and by three in the afternoon the water is back on the street, so to speak. What’s left over is a half-million gallons of concentrated daily waste, now known as sludge.
I followed Askew into an enormous room of computers, controls, workstations, and switches. Behind us flashed a wall-size diagrammatic panel, the great computerized brain of waste. Next to us stood the oiler, who had been at North River twenty years.
“Right now we’re at 135 million gallons per day,” said the oiler.
The greatest increase occurs between eight and nine in the morning, when the city’s output swells from 70 million to 150 million gallons per day. This is known as the big flush. Now it was eleven A.M., and in a few hours the circadian flow of biology en masse would begin to diminish, eventually bottoming out around four in the morning, at 68 million gallons per day. The rhythm is as steady as the tides. “The Super Bowl halftime surge is a myth,” said Askew.
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