A couple weeks ago, I asked you if you ever considered what happens to your trash after you toss it to the curb. Chances are, if you’ve never really thought about it then you’re probably not going to have an answer to my next question. Which is…have you considered what happens after you flush your toilet in NYC? Well, if you live in parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, a lot of that wastewater might be finding its way to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. And believe it or not, touring their facility is one of the hottest tickets in town!
The Newtown Creek plant, which opened in 1967, is the largest of NYC’s wastewater treatment facilities, serving 1 million NYC residents and processing about 18% of the city’s wastewater. Three times a year in February, April, and October, visitors can ascend to the top of Newtown Creek’s iconic “digester eggs”, which are used for processing about 1.5 million gallons of NYC’s sludge…per day.
A couple weeks ago, my husband and I attended their “Valentine’s Day” tour because, well, we’re weird like that. To be fair, it didn’t actually take place on Valentine’s Day but a few days prior. Later in the evening, they were planning to light up the eggs in red lights to make it look all festive for the upcoming holiday!
Our tour started with an intro to NYC’s wastewater treatment process, which is QUITE a process when you consider how many people live in this city. Every day, NYC processes more than a billion gallons of wastewater across its 14 wastewater treatment facilities. Overall, the city has 7,400 miles of sewer pipes, in addition to various other storm and wastewater collection sites and pumping stations. Wastewater treatment is a surprisingly fast process, taking only about 7 hours to remove most pollutants before the treated water is then released into the surrounding rivers and bays in NYC.
Something you may not be aware of, though, is that sometimes untreated waste actually makes its way into NYC waterways. See, our city has this delightful thing called Combined Sewer Overflows (or CSOs), which basically means that stormwater and wastewater are all collected and processed together in NYC and only so much of that water can be processed at the same time. Which also means…when there is a heavy downpour, the systems can’t keep up and, therefore, stormwater and untreated wastewater need to be ejected into NYC’s waterways before they can be properly treated.
Super gross, right? Well, fortunately, NYC waterways are tidal and so water leaves and returns to the city a couple times a day every day, which helps to dilute and flush out a lot of that contaminated water. That said, it’s really not advisable to eat any fish from the local waterways. And if you would prefer not to get sick, it’s also recommended that you avoid getting in the water after a heavy rain that resulted in a release of contaminated water nearby.
Because…contaminated water is nasty, right? And it CAN make you sick, which is one of the main reasons that wastewater treatment facilities like Newtown Creek exist in the first place. Contaminated water carries diseases, like cholera, and wastewater treatment can minimize the spread of disease, not to mention help to protect wildlife and the environment from being subjected to a total onslaught of untreated water.
The wastewater treatment process consists of five distinct phases. First, everything that comes into the treatment facility is passed through huge screens which help to separate garbage and large objects (such as furniture and bikes, apparently) from the wastewater so they don’t damage the pumps. Next, wastewater goes through a primary and secondary treatment process which essentially works to separate solid waste from fluid waste.
Grease and oil will float to the top and get skimmed off, and solids will sink to the bottom and become sludge. Air and bacteria are added to help breakdown the organic solids, and then the treated water moves on to be disinfected and released into the city’s waterways. The remaining sludge at Newtown Creek’s facility is moved on to their spaceship-looking digester eggs to be processed further.
Once sludge is in the digester eggs, it’s heated to 95 degrees in a completely oxygen-free environment, which allows anaerobic bacteria to thrive and break down the organic material even more…in other words, the bacteria “digests” the sludge! The result is the creation of mostly water, carbon dioxide, and methane gas, the latter of which is used as an energy source at the plant.
Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, methane gas is on the smelly side and you are probably wondering why we would want to take a tour somewhere that must be super stinky. Surprisingly, though, we barely smelled anything offputting while onsite. Most of the tour was fairly odor-free and we didn’t really notice a smell in the general area around the facility. Really, it wasn’t until we took the elevator up to the glass walkways over the digester eggs that we began to encounter any smell whatsoever and even then, it was more of an “earthy” smell than anything.
Granted, I suppose if you were visiting in the summer when it’s also 100 degrees outside it might be a different story, but since it was only about 20 degrees on the day of our visit, it wasn’t exactly awful (might also be why they don’t actually schedule any tours in the summertime, too!) And, since the walkway stands up at about 160 feet, you get some pretty fantastic views of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, making the slight odor seem not so bad in the end. It’s just good to know that those eggs are doing a pretty important bit of public service for us New Yorkers!
The Newtown Creek tour was very interesting, but it was also a bit alarming to learn that the city still doesn’t have a way to completely prevent polluted water and raw sewage from being released into the city’s waterways due to the combined sewer system. Fortunately, changes to environmental laws and upgrades to the city’s treatment facilities over the past couple of decades have drastically reduced the amount of untreated water being released.
There are also many new green infrastructure systems that help to minimize stormwater runoff and reduce the load on the city’s sewer system. And organizations such as the Billion Oyster Project are trying to restore oysters to NY Harbor since just one oyster is capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day. All of these various efforts are a step in the right direction to keeping NYC’s surrounding waterways clean while ensuring New Yorkers to stay safe and healthy.
And so, while touring a wastewater treatment plant may not be the first thing you think of doing as a first-time visitor to NYC, it’s certainly a more unique option for those of us who live here full time and who are always seeking out something new and unusual to do.
And we weren’t the only ones who had an interest in touring the facility by any means. Our time slot probably had around 75 attendees, and there were four time slots available throughout the day! Overall, seeing the views from atop the eggs and learning about an incredibly important aspect of urban living made for a fun and interesting event, so it’s really not surprising to learn that these tours fill up so quickly.
So, if you’re looking for something a bit offbeat to do in NYC and if you have an interest in science and environmentalism or just really enjoy learning about how things work, a visit to the Newtown Creek digester eggs might just be the tour for you. And best of all, it’s free! Remember, though, they only offer tours three times a year and spots fill up quickly, so you’ll need to keep your eye on their tour page if you want a chance to visit during their next round of tours.
What do you think? Would you check out a tour of a wastewater treatment plant? Let me know your thoughts!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant: The tours depart from the Visitor Center near the intersection of Greenpoint Avenue and Humboldt Street at 329 Greenpoint Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11222.
When to Go
- Tours are available in February, April, and October, and tickets usually become available a couple weeks before the tour date. Each tour date will offer several time slots you can choose from.
- For the October tours, you’ll need to register through Open House New York, who hosts the fall tours around the second or third weekend every October.
Tips for Visiting
- You’ll need to start checking the tour website a month in advance to find the scheduled tour date. Then, you’ll need to start checking the site daily about three weeks prior to the tour date to find out when tickets will actually become available.
- Tickets are free, but you can only reserve one at a time. If you plan to attend with someone else, it would be best if you reserved tickets simultaneously to ensure you both get a spot for the same timeslot.
- Though your tour will begin indoors, you’ll walk outside to get to the eggs and the walkway over the eggs isn’t fully closed off from the elements, so dress accordingly. It was very, very cold when we visited and we had to stay bundled up for the walk to the eggs and during our time up on top of them.
- This is an active facility, so be sure to follow all safety instructions. You’ll need to wear a hardhat and fluorescent vest throughout your tour. It goes without saying, but when you’re up on top of the eggs, don’t touch any valves, knobs, or hatches.
- Though there really wasn’t much smell at all at the plant, I suspect if you attended on a hot day in April or October the odor could be more intense. As such, I would definitely recommend visiting in February when it’s almost always going to be cold!
- Be sure to thank your tour guides at the end of the tour. They’re all employees of the Newtown Creek facility, and each one of them was friendly and informative. And let’s face it, they do a pretty thankless job. The work they do is so important, though, and they’re very deserving of all our gratitude and appreciation!