>A journey through the American cloaca
by Frederick Kaufman
Harper’s Magazine (February 2008)
In 1998, John Brunston bought a house in Yorktown Heights, a suburb of New York City. His wife decorated bedrooms for their three daughters, and Brunston planted a cherry tree and an American flag. Then-came the spring rains, and Brunston discovered a dark fountain of human waste bubbling up from his back yard.
He did everything he could to stop the sickening flow. He consulted engineers, installed a new septic tank, purchased sump pumps, dumped ton after ton of fresh soil over the ooze. He spent tens of thousands of dollars, but the evil-smelling gloop still percolated to the surface.
Brunston lives in a densely populated, well-established neighborhood. He should not have to use a septic tank. His waste should flow into the underground pipe that lies no more than thirty feet from his front door, and that pipe should carry the Brunston family waste far from the Brunston family home. But neither John Brunston nor anyone else on this lovely block of Yorktown Heights can hook up to a sewer, because the sewers of Yorktown Heights are already full. In feet, they are running at 100,000 gallons of waste per day beyond capacity. So Brunston’s back yard must absorb Brunston’s waste. And it cannot.
Every day, America must find a place to park five billion gallons of human waste, and our country appears increasingly unable to find the space. Not surprisingly, the effects have been dramatic: the Colorado Springs Gazette reports that one Jennifer McCowen discovered a geyser of raw sewage emerging from her toilet. “I couldn’t believe it”, McCowen told the newspaper. “It filled the bathtub until it overflowed”. In southern California, where surfer websites post hourly runoff warnings, a paltry two-million-gallon belch will not stop a dude from his appointed rounds in the bays of Santa Monica or Hermosa Beach. But when an aging main in Oahu discharged 48 million gallons of human waste into the placid waters of Waikiki, residents were not happy – particularly not the one who fell headlong into the fetid morass and died. In Durham, North Carolina, sewage has reared up from the depths and gurgled across the city sidewalks at an alarming rate of once every eleven days. North Carolina has notched up more than 2,000 such spills, both urban and suburban, and the state of Oregon fined Portland a half-million dollars for sixty-seven overflows. Local newspapers from Tulsa to Allentown describe the same nightmare: Reeking goo invades family basement and living room. Unclear who will pay for the mess.
This sounds like a problem. 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; thus the horror of John Brunston’s back yard. 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. Perhaps we could bridge the chasm, heal the rift, transform the untouchable into something rich and strange and marketable. Or so I hoped as I toured John Brunston’s back yard.
The soggy lawn squished beneath our shoes, and I surveyed the wet grass with suspicion and growing anxiety. We smushed beyond the cherry tree. I kneeled in the shade, tugged at a tuft of grass, and the earth peeled back like a scab, releasing the dreaded stink. I recalled a report from the National Research Council, entitled Biosolids Applied to Land, in which the authors noted that “odor perception has been shown to affect mood, including levels of tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion”. Brunston smiled vaguely and asked that I not include his real last name in the article. He told me he was embarrassed about his house.
I poked a stick into the lawn. A slick of clay lurked beneath the soft soil, then a smattering of damp stones, then the terrible stew, I turned away gasping, profoundly sorry I had made the trip. Since infancy we have been taught to stifle our curiosity, programmed not to look. Perhaps there were good reasons for the repression and denial.
“Want to see the septic tank?” asked Brunston. We made our way past the lilac bushes and the bird feeder, then he pushed aside a cedar rocking chair, removed four paving stones from the patio, and set about unscrewing the white plastic tank cover. Instead of watching him, I gazed at the nearest pine tree. A rope hung from a branch, and a well-battered baseball hung from the rope. “There”, he said. “It’s full. Can’t digest any more.”
The white van speeded through miles of concrete tunnel. “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.
The white van had reached the end of its journey, and 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 seventy million to 150 million gallons per day. This is known as the big flush. Now it was 11:00 am, 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.
He led me across the concrete floor, through a concrete warehouse, and to the concrete screening room, where he began to extol the virtue and beauty of his eleven-mile-long sewage interceptor. By the time the morning flush finally rolls into North River, it has joined the downstream flow of all the other morning flushes from all the other sewage lines from Bank Street to the Upper West Side, and sunk fifty-four feet below sea level. It is here, at the extreme low point of this immense underground current, that North River gets to work. In the stygian depths, its mighty diameter swollen to sixteen feet, the dark torrent branches into six channels, each of which must be pumped to the top floor of the plant, where gravity can once again take hold and set the outcast on a new journey.
Askew gazed into the inky pool of untreated wastewater and began to describe some of the marvels the interceptor had disclosed. Aside from the daily take of leaves, sticks, cans, and paper, the great rake had brought up quite a few vials of cocaine. When cops bang on the door, the toilet is a drug dealer’s best friend. Ditto for the professional forger: a good deal of counterfeit money has floated into Steve Askew’s hands. Twenty years ago a dog showed up, a living dog that became the mascot of a Brooklyn plant.
“I never saw an alligator”, said Askew.
As we walked away from the pool, I asked about the wind. No matter what the weather is outside, no matter where we traveled inside, the thick concrete walls of North River generated bracing gusts. Askew explained that every minute, titanic blowing machines inhaled 600,000 cubic feet of fresh air and exhaled 750,000 cubic feet of carbon-filtered, bleach-scrubbed exhaust – six to twelve complete air changes per hour.
But the scouring of North River’s halitosis, while essential to community relations, has nothing to do with the plant’s core mission. The alchemy of purgative transformation starts in the warmth and humidity of the next chamber we visited, where submerged chemical mixers combine the waste with custom-made bacteria. “It’s volatizing off! ” Askew yelled above the din of engines and bubbling brown water. Undeterred by the general uproar, Askew detailed the technical intricacies of fecal breakdown and development, but I’m afraid the cacophony blunted the nuances. So Askew dumbed down the lecture. “This looks really good!” he hollered. “Tan water! Light brown froth! Small bubbles! Musty smell! If the foam looks like chocolate mousse, that’s an indication of a bacteriological process!”
We headed to a low-ceilinged room so huge it did not appear to have walls. Here were the settling tanks, the final stop before the water returned to the world. Peace held sway among these last lagoons, and indistinct reservoirs misted into a concrete vanishing point hundreds of yards away. “On a cold morning, you will see the water vaporing off”, Askew said. “And it will rain inside the plant”.
He gave me the look. “When it is really cold, it snows inside the plant”.
At that moment, two square football fields of submerged jets spumed into the shadows and the bronze liquid arced, more sublime and terrifying than the fountains of Trevi or Versailles. Soon these waters would sluice down concrete courses to mix with the mighty Hudson. As for the remaining sludge, it also would depart, but by an altogether different route.
When the froth finally settled back into silence, Steve Askew backtracked through the concrete dungeons until we arrived at a perfectly normal conference room and a nice surprise – someone had ordered pizza!
Despite the skating rink and swimming pool, despite the bleach, the carbon filters, the white hardhats and the spotless lab coats of the technicians, despite the banks of UNIX-computers and the sober talk of asymptotes and oxygen demand, despite the boardroom-size wood-veneer table and the well-upholstered ergonomic chairs and the rush of 20,000 cubic feet of air per second, and despite, to put it bluntly, one of the most extraordinary concealments in all of human history, North River still managed to evoke unappetizing associations. But as I gazed at the cheese and red sauce and blackened crust, I recalled the words of one of the many wastewater professionals I had met that morning: “One of the things about the job – you still have to eat”.
So I sat down to lunch and learned about the glorious future of waste. Now that biochemists could scour the particles on the atomic level, the plant could recover ibuprofen, acetaminophen, endocrine disrupters, DEET, Prozac, and Chanel No 5. Even caffeine could be extracted from the mix, and I had a hunch the citizens of New York excreted boatloads of stimulant. Perhaps Starbucks would be interested. The technology was there.
“Twenty years from now we will be removing things we have no idea about”, said Askew. “Penicillin, mercury, heroin. Will this be a pharm business? An energy business? An agribusiness?”
He took another bite and delivered the look.
“A bear goes in the woods and it takes two years to decompose. We do it in six hours. In six hours, we imitate all of nature – from the big bang to the big chill. We’re trying to put it back the way that God intended.”
Throughout its long history of denial, waste has lurked behind countless appellations: egesta, dejecta, sham, stale, skite, dynga, ordure, oriental sulfur, occidental sulfur, and carbon humanum, to name but a few. Witches’ potions called for etihs; alchemists’ elixirs required botryon, aureum, oletum, or zibethum.
The rich and variegated literature of waste has suffered the same repression as the language. The Secrets of Physicke appeared in London in 1633, and enumerated all uses of pedung, but nothing more was heard upon the subject until more than half a century later, when Frankfurt publishers issued Christian Franz Paullini’s scandalous Dreck Apothek, in which the esteemed German botanist guaranteed a successful cure for “even the most difficult, most poisonous diseases and bewitched injuries from head to feet, inside and out, with filth and urine”. Dreck became the undisputed authority on all stool-related matters for almost three decades, until Dresden publishers brought out M Schurig’s vast and ponderous Chylologia (only five short years after publication of his equally vast and ponderous Spermatologia). Chylologia contained citations from nearly seven hundred scholars of human excrescence, each more unknown than the next: Sclopetarius, Goclenius, Spagyria Microcosmi, and Zacutus Lusitanus. To write about the subject guaranteed obscurity.
The sole American to contribute to the literature was Captain John Bourke of the United States Army. After Bourke fought in the Civil War, he traveled west to fight the Apaches and, generally speaking, keep any and all natives in line. Bourke got hooked on waste after he witnessed a Zuni urine dance in which a great olla of urine provided a “strange and abominable refreshment”. He must have spent countless solitary hours thereafter in the fort library perusing the secret ingredients of ancient sterility cures and primitive love philters. After a decade of scholarship, he emerged with the most thorough study of excrement ever published in this country, the Scatalogic Rites of All Nations. Bourke described the fecal practices of the Hualapai and the Navajo, the Tartars and the Fiji Islanders, the Egyptians and the Hottentots, the Samoans and the Bongos of the upper Nile. His sources ranged from Martin Luther to Montaigne, Moses, Martial, Marco Polo, Ezekiel, Erasmus, and Shakespeare. Upon publication of. his work in 1891, Bourke’s editors stamped the frontispiece “Not for General Perusal”.
The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant creates sparkling fresh, nutrient-rich sludge. In the old days, the night soil collector would spread such promising young shite on village crops, but in these days of refinement and paranoia, sludge requires a few more alchemical interventions and changes of venue. Thus did I find myself on the bridge of a sludge boat next to a potbellied man who swiveled his chair and checked the radar.
“We’re the secret”, said Captain Jonas.
Captain Jonas is from Flushing, and he was quick to tell me about the story he had read the other day that said New York City has the fourth-largest navy in the world. “For a municipality to have its own fleet of tankers is virtually unheard of”, he said. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the New York City navy moves New York City waste.
The boat plowed past the United Nations, and not one diplomat who gazed out the window could have suspected his part in our journey to the heart of darkness. Half a nautical mile below Wall Street we would hang a right, then head up to Harlem’s western shore. Our mission: to pick up a single load of 700,000 gallons of waste from North River and carry it to Wards Island in the Bronx, where the sludge could be transformed into cake. Melville once wrote that a whaling ship had been his Harvard and his Yale, which made me consider the pedagogical value of our prospective cargo.
The sludge boat stretched longer than a football field and packed two massive propellers, two titanic cranes, three thousand horsepower, and one frighteningly distended black rubber Goodyear hose, the diameter of which matched the length of my leg. We all knew what would go through that hose.
Captain Jonas pulled back the throttle, and the sludge boat quaked, lurched, and churned past the Statue of Liberty. “It may be shit to you”, he said. “It’s bread and butter to me”.
I asked him about the future of human waste. “You can divert it, but you can’t stop it”, he said. “It’s a problem now, it’ll be a problem in the future”. We bulled past Governors Island, which is rumored to have no sewage system. I asked Captain Jonas what happened to Governors Island waste.
“It drops into the Upper Bay”, said Jonas.
“Straight into the water?” I asked.
Now Captain Jonas gave me the look. “The ban on ocean dumping was rammed down people’s throats”, he said. “Ocean dumping was not the big, monstrous evil”.
“It was the best fishing ground”, lamented the first mate.
“Fifty years from now we’ll probably be ocean dumping again”, said Jonas. “This is cyclical”.
The great concrete mass of North River loomed ahead; and plant staff donned their hard hats and work gloves and readied themselves for pumping. Captain Jonas marched outside. “Right twenty!” he roared to the first mate. “Right twenty! Back ten!”
One of the onboard cranes lifted the mighty black snake, and the plant workers grabbed the hose, wrestled it into position, and gave the ready signal. Someone turned a valve. The hose jumped and twitched, the ship trembled with the force, and a sour smell began to rise. “Gotta go!” cried Captain Jonas. “Gotta go! Gotta go!”
As the boat filled with waste I descended the stairway to the main deck. One of the hard hats was embracing the rank and monstrous intestine, trying to hold the writhing rubber steady, and I gave him plenty of leeway. But after a while I stepped toward the hose, touched my palm to the warmth, and felt the cosmic surge.
The veneration of human waste boasts a noble history. Among the verdant passes of the Himalayas, intrepid Jesuit missionaries discovered cult worship of multicolored powders and hand-fashioned pills produced from the dried and pulverized ejecta of the Grand Lama, which the Buddhists wore as amulets around their necks. Some of the Mongols painstakingly packed the holy relics within golden boxes. Others consumed it as sacred snuff, still others as a rare condiment. “When they feast their friends”, noted one witness, they “strew it upon their meat”.
In the Scatalogic Rites of All Nations, Captain John Bourke wrote that in the distant past, “all excretions, solid or fluid, were invested with mystic properties”, an assertion that might go far in explaining why the creation myths of the Australian aborigines avowed that the great Bund-jil filled the oceans with his urine and the obscure deity Mingarope molded men and women from her feces. Of course, modern religion has long sought to expunge the ancient gods and goddesses who touched and ate and even loved ejecta. Consider Saturn, most ancient of the Roman gods, who was also known by the epithet Sterculius – as in stercus, or dung – god of the magical transformation of death into life. The great spirit of this original, unexpurgated Saturn inhabited manure. Aurum de stercore.
What could be more magical, more godlike, than the metamorphosis of that which we abhor and expel into that which we desire, embrace, and ingest? On the far eastern peninsula of Russia lie the snow-blanketed mountains, shooting geysers, and hot springs of Kamchatka. Like many isolated folk, the Kamchatkans retained their own particular worldview far past the time when the “primitive” had been drummed out of most of Asia and Europe. Of all the Kamchatkan deities, Kutka was the greatest. Kutka created the world and every living being – then fell in love with his excrement and wooed it as his bride.
Black magic hexes could be undone only by the potent charms of human waste. The exorcism rites of the Abyssinians demanded waste, as did the oblations of the Ojibwa and the Huron, the Iroquois and the Eskimo, the Mojave and the Patagonians. Alloyed with musk and ambergris and set smoldering, the acrid smell would have been recognized across barbaric Europe as holy.
The most worshipped and praised of all ancient sewers was Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, whose spirit resided within the shrine of the goddess Cloacina, where warriors came to purge themselves after battle and young couples purified themselves before marriage. The lovely Cloacina was an emanation of Venus, and her statue overlooked the imperial city’s sewer pipes as they transported 100,000 pounds of ancient excrementum a day. Built in the sixth century BC by the two Tarquins, hailed as one of the three marvels of Rome, the Cloaca became one of the city’s great tourist traps. Agrippa rode a boat through it. Nero washed his hands in it. “Thus may the greatness of Rome be inferred”, declared Cassiodorus. “What other city can compare with her in her heights, when her depths are so incomparable?”
The ancient doctors Hippocrates, Xenocrates, and Dioscorides employed plasters and poultices and styptics and decoctions of waste to treat holy diseases, such as epilepsy and mania. Physicians paid close attention to filth remedies for the plague and boils, headache and insomnia, dementia and insanity, not to mention anorexia, cancer, cataracts, convulsions, constipation, and freckles. Proto-psychotherapists analyzed melancholy excrements.
Like the Romans and the Moabites and lovesick maidens in France, the alchemists of Europe believed in the spiritual powers of human waste, which ranked among the strongest of all magnetic medicines. The great Paracelsus, father of modern pharmacology, kept a store from which he hoped to conjure nothing less than the philosopher’s stone. “Man’s dung, or excrement, hath very great virtues”, he wrote, “because it contains in it all the noble essences”.
Here are the ABC’s of Frederick Kaufman’s waste: It flows into a sewage pipe, ferments and settles at North River, then splashes through a black rubber hose. It takes a trip around the southern tip of Manhattan and up to the Bronx in Captain Jonas’s tanker, disembarks on Wards Island, then falls into a giant blue centrifuge, where it begins to spin, faster and faster, until it has become an incomprehensible blur at two thousand revolutions per minute.
I stood on the floor amid the roar of thirteen German-made Humboldts and watched as Joe Pace, a twenty-one-year Department of Environmental Protection veteran, turned one of them off and leaned down to scoop out a few tablespoons of black, carbony dust. The liquid sludge from North River had been dried and shrunk into fine gravel, and the smell was amazing. Overcome the repression, I told myself. Transcend it. Do not mind the pain.
Joe shined a flashlight on the cake, and it was blacker than black; the stink concentrated ten or fifteen times normal. Tears dripped down my cheeks. “It takes a while to get used to it”, said Joe.
He flipped the switch, and as the centrifuge started back up I touched the blue cast iron and felt the vibrations of the orbit, felt the warmth. Joe kept his cake at body temperature. He turned an orange knob, and clear fluid poured out the bottom of the tank and pooled on the floor, not too far from my loafers. He shined his flashlight on the discharge. “Not bad”, he said. “Pretty clean”.
A dark conveyor belt shuttled the black dust from the blue centrifuges to a weigh station. Every ounce of material had to be counted before it could be released to the hoppers. Somewhere, someone was keeping score. Joe led me to the giant, closed garage where we watched a fresh load drop into the back of an eighteen-wheeler.
“They carry twenty-five tons”, said Joe.
It did not take very long before the truck’s hold was filled, at which point a black hood automatically unfurled across the top. The truck pulled out, the eighteenth that day to nimble from the Wards Island dewatering plant and into the streets. No one would have suspected the nature of its contents.
I asked who ran the trucks.
“NYOFCO”, said Joe.
We left the garage and headed to the control room, where Joe explained the red and yellow lights of his mimic board and I nosed around until I found an old piece of stained paper Scotch-taped to the wall. NYOFCO, it said at the top.
Joe checked one of his screens and picked up the phone. “Be here in an hour”, he told me.
“Who will be here?”
“NYOFCO”, said Joe.
He turned back to the flashing mimic board and I to the stained memo on the wall. NYOFCO was the New York Organic Fertilizer Company, which was itself a wholly owned subsidiary of another company, called Synagro. And what was Synagro? In 2005, Synagro Technologies, Inc, somehow managed to sell nearly half a million tons of human waste for revenues of $338 million. The company did its business on a million acres of land in thirty-seven states, and had signed deals with six hundred colossal collectors for the drying, composting, incineration, and product marketing of human waste. The New York Organic Fertilizer Company was just one of many Synagro subsidiaries.
I asked Joe what NYOFCO did with my waste after they hauled it from Wards Island.
“They sell it to the Arabs”, he said. “It works in the desert”.
When I first set off on the trail of waste from the sewer to wherever it finally ended up, no matter how close or far away, I had believed I was Kurtz heading into the heart of darkness; but somewhere along the way I had morphed into Woodward and Bernstein, following the money.
As it turns out, the transformation of human waste into articles of commerce dates back to ancient Egypt. In the New World, Hernan Cortes reported that human excrement was collected in Aztec sludge rafts, then sold in the marketplace of Tenochtitlan. A seventeenth-century physician named Rosinus Lentilius recounted that the Chinese and Javanese exchanged human waste for tobacco and nuts.
Contrary to its name, waste can be useful. Human tyrd has polished gold, bleached wool, and helped produce salt and cheese. Innumerable tradesmen have used it to tan leather, adulterate opium, eradicate dandruff, ink tattoos, promote hair growth, and brush their teeth. Much to the delight of professional bakers, the General Homoeopathic Journal in 1886 reported that “chemists have evidently no difficulty in demonstrating that water impregnated with ‘extract of water-closet’, has the peculiar property of causing dough to rise particularly fine”.
In the early 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency began a campaign to acclimate US consumers to the commercial use of human waste. Touted as superior to cow manure and commercial fertilizers, ton after ton of EPA-subsidized sludge and cake arrived in low-income rural areas, distributed free of charge to cash-strapped farmers. The EPA knew the ocean-dumping days would soon be gone, knew that the future of waste would lie much closer to home. In fact, the Ocean Disposal Ban Act of 1988 specifically barred human waste from the sea, which meant a sudden need for more holding tanks, more solid-waste treatment plants, more monstrous black hoses, more blue Humboldt centrifuges, and entirely new industries.
Synagro Technologies calls itself the largest recycler of biosolids in America, the only national corporation focused exclusively on what has come to be known as the “organic residuals industry”, a market Synagro hopes will generate $8 billion annually. But it turns out that as the waste revolves, commercial opportunities abound. You may have given it away, but if you want it back you’ll have to pay for Granulite, Milorganite, Soil Rich, Vital Cycle, or many of the other wonder soils available from Agway, Home Depot, Kmart, Target, Wal-Mart, or your local purveyor of organic fertilizer. And that’s just the beginning. Some of the new breed of waste and pollution entrepreneurs do possess rather sinister names – Controlotron, MicroSepTec, Toxalert, and SICK, Inc – or even terrifying names, such as American Pulverizer and Annihilator. Not to worry. You can trust your investment in these little guys, because the big guys are in on it, too: Dow, Honeywell, Monsanto, Siemens, and Toshiba.
Now consider that the twenty-first-century waste-management purchase order will have to enumerate innumerable widgets, from mist eliminators to ozonators and vortex meters. How else to defoam, degrease, degrit, demineralize, desalinate, and deionize? We will have to purchase rotocages and rotoscoops, grit chambers and chopper pumps, microbubbles and floating sludge blankets. We will need plastic tubs of next year’s coliforms and designer slimes, floes, fungi, hightech bacilli, and superdeluxe electrochemical bacteria ready to power tomorrow’s superdeluxe microbial fuel cells.
The economic potential of human waste has driven new research agendas for toxicogenomics, odor streams, and vapor media. An industrial chemistry of coagulation and flume has arisen, a new biology of micronutrients, microspores, putrescible organics, and “the human receptor”, which is waste-speak for you and me. Will waste become an agribusiness? A biopolymer business? A pharm business? An energy business? Once everyone gets over the mental hump of cadaverine and putrescine, why not consider futures and options trading on the transcontinental waste exchange?
Just as the esoteric mysteries of Bund-jil, Saturn, and Cloacina have been vanquished by biocriteria, particle indices, and risk-management flowcharts, so waste itself has been monetized into anthropogenic input and the allochthonous organic matter source. The all-waste society masquerades as the zero-waste society, an antiseptic land where death itself has been transformed into biocide.
I stopped at the guard gate of the New York Organic Fertilizer Company, then pulled into a parking spot a yard or two from the murky waters of the East River. I got out of the car and took a deep breath. In order to grasp the future of waste, I needed to get past the middle managers I was about to meet here in the Bronx. In the next few hours I would have to make fast friends, then talk my way into an appointment with the big guy in Houston, Synagro’s chief executive officer. And that was far from a done deal.
A barbershop-striped smokestack towered above NYOFCO’s seven-acre property, and railroad tracks ran close by eight tremendous human-waste storage silos, each capable of holding half of New York City’s daily concentrated output. Before I pushed through the glass doors of the main building, I stopped to consider the corporate logo. Beneath smooth swirls and abstract arcs worthy of AT&T or Chevron glowed the Synagro motto: “A Residuals Management Company”.
I walked into the lobby and the now familiar stink of rotten cabbage, dead mouse, and feces. I stepped across the old linoleum to examine a wood-paneled wall plastered with the covenants that allowed NYOFCO to do what it did: chemical-bulk-storage certificates, sewer-use regulation amendments, wastewater-discharge authorizations, and a permit for a 10,000-gallon tank of sulfuric acid. I met John Kopec, fifty-nine, Army veteran and Yankees fan. Before he began at NYOFCO, Kopec worked at a cement plant for twenty-nine years.
“A process is a process”, said Kopec. “Both have to do with heat”.
As usual, the first stop on the visit was a plush chair in the conference room. A cut-glass ashtray sat between us, a Deer Park water cooler stood off to the side. Behind us the shelves groaned with white plastic loose-leaf notebooks, rubber gloves, and gas masks. John Kopec pulled out some samples of Granulite, the product he manufactured from New York City sludge. He asked me to open a vial of the pellets, which I did. He asked me to smell it. I did. Then he told me that the New York Organic Fertilizer Company could produce up to 2,100 tons of these kibble-size nutrient-rich human fertilizer pellets each week.
I nodded as Kopec reviewed all that had happened at North River and at Wards Island, and I smiled as he explained his own system of pin mixers, rotary dryers, purge cycling, and 1,000-degree waste-baking ovens. Kopec described air streams and gas streams, nodalization and cyclones, separators and regenerative thermal oxidizers, and the tale reached it’s climax when out of the last screener dropped the pellet I now held in my hand.
“The final product is pathogen free”, said Kopec, by which he meant no traces of meningitis, hepatitis, or malignant protozoa. No tapeworms, no whipworms, no oocysts, and no streptococci. “There’s nothing in this material”. said Kopec.
The first part of our interview had come to an end, and a tour of the storage silos was next. “Want to go inside?” he asked, and gave me the long-expected, long-awaited look.
I stood up, put on a hard hat, and adjusted the plastic goggles. We left the building and walked across the dirt straight into Silo 5. We stood in the middle of the great steel cylinder and stared at the steel walls, craning our necks to examine the steel ceiling. The vast silo was empty, washed, and sparkling clean, but its penetrating ammonia scent held us in thrall, as though the waste had permeated the steel. We reeled to the sweet-smelling Bronx outdoors and inspected some railroad freight cars, each of which could hold one hundred tons. Next to the tracks stood a ten-foot tank of frozen nitrogen that pumped gas inside the silos to keep the atmosphere inert. Waste is the stuff munitions are made of, every pile a potential explosion. The first World Trade Center attack used a fertilizer bomb.
A sixteen-wheel NYOFCO truck of incoming now approached Kopec’s plant, and we walked over to watch its reception. Of course, we could not see the freight, shrouded as it was beneath tightly battened tarps. An automatic door rose as the truck hissed and beeped its way inside the dark garage; then the door descended and Kopec explained that at that moment, out of sight, product was streaming into his plant. Then the door rose, and dripping from its hose-down the empty truck emerged and rumbled off. The process had taken two minutes.
As we headed back to Kopec’s office, I complimented him on his spotless grounds, and he beamed. A bright red apple shined on his desk, the fruit perfectly aligned with his cup of Starbucks and the pack of Utz potato chips. Pictures of the family stood between shiny model trucks and a box of Kleenex. Kopec explained that a new duct system was on its way, which meant the interior of the building would in a short time be untainted by the slightest aroma. It occurred to me the guy was a clean freak.
Where did the pellets go when they left NYOFCO?
Kopec explained that after the railroad cars pulled up beneath the silos and the dehydrated buckshot tumbled down, the waste headed to Florida, to fertilize our morning orange juice. But that was not all. Kopec described the Lehigh Cement Company’s Maryland plant, which used some of Kopec’s pellets – my pellets – for fuel. Burning waste did create a fair bit of ash, so Lehigh dumped the detritus of the detritus into the concrete mix. The foundation for tomorrow’s skyscraper.
“This is an amazing industry”, said Kopec. “We’re still in infancy. We’re exploring possibilities.”
The conversation had reached the usual endpoint, the dreamy future of waste. As if we just sat there long enough and thought about it, we would know. Would pellets heat houses? Light buildings? Fuel cars?
“They’re actually exploring it”, said Kopec. “Anything is possible”.
Finally, I told him about my wish to visit Synagro world headquarters in Houston. I told him I wanted to interview the CEO. I knew his name was Robert Boucher and he was forty-one years old, but that was it.
“He’s accessible”, said John Kopec. “If I need to talk to him, I can talk to him”. I looked at the phone.
I had vowed not to stop until I reached the end of the line and saw the circle close, the beginning in the end, but the closer I came to the redemptive moment, the more I came to realize that not everyone had been convinced of the miraculous future of human waste. From the Bronx to Temescal Canyon, complaints have arisen about a grave threat to nature and humanity. The citizens of Kern County, California, fought to ban the dumping of human waste, which the local Green Acres farm had eagerly adopted to fertilize the wheat, alfalfa, and corn they sold as feed to nearby dairy farms. No one in Kern County wanted to drink the milk that flowed from cows that ate the feed that grew from pellets that arrived from NYOFCO that came from Wards Island that emerged from North River. That had come from me.
Human waste is, of course, one of the oldest fertilizers known to human beings. But the future of waste must take into account a few salient facts: You and your next-door neighbor may be hooked up to a sewer, but so are DuPont, Monsanto, 3M, and your local hospital, which can make for some far-ranging effluvial consequences. Content surveys have uncovered dioxins, furans, and coplanar polychlorinated biphenyls, not to mention the germs of pneumonia and encephalitis. In 1993, the EPA assessed 126 “priority pollutants” in solid waste. Arsenic, lead, and mercury led the way.
And so the reported incidents of disease near fields of waste and the growing roster of men, women, and children suffering from blisters, boils, nose scabs, pleurisy, and fungus in the lungs. So the reports of hundreds of cows wasting away and dying on farms outside of Augusta, Georgia – cows fed from hay fields fertilized with the sewage of the residents of Augusta, Georgia. So the opposition to composting and pellet farming from such groups as the National Sludge Alliance and Citizens Against Toxic Sludge. So the Sludgewatch email Listserv.
Every year, America processes more than five million dry tons of sewage sludge. Much of it is slingshot into forests or injected beneath the surface of the earth, and the remainder fills strip mines and gravel pits or rumbles off to turf farms, aquafarms, tree nurseries, or state parks. Some of the waste creates the rolling greens of your local golf course, the fresh soil of your cemetery, the fertilizer on your front lawn.
Cows graze on treated pasture, as well as on field corn and sweet corn grown on human waste. And when a cow eats pasture, she also eats the dirt from which it springs. Sheep may ingest up to a third of their diet as straight dirt. Then we eat the meat.
The best and the brightest and the most intensively treated human waste meets EPA criteria for “exceptional quality”. EQ waste may be used to nurture such human-food-chain crops as beans, carrots, melons, potatoes, and squash. Heinz and Del Monte have taken a cautious approach and decided not to accept ingredients grown on land treated with biosolids. Then again, some organic farmers have reported that human fertilizer raised the protein content of their wheat.
It was eighty degrees outside and pouring rain as I took JFK Boulevard south to the beltway and headed toward the Galleria. I drove through the deluge until I came to Capital One and Texas American Title and the Bering Drive Church of Christ. I pulled into a concrete garage and approached a sinister monolith of a building, the top floor shrouded in mist. This was Synagro, home to the future of waste, and the tinted-curtain wall reflected storm clouds.
I stood in the silent, spotless lobby and admired the stainless-steel columns and the black granite floors. Absolutely no one else was there. I caught an elevator to the top and pushed through the double glass doors.
On the walls, Synagro displayed beautiful images of its product. One glossy color photograph featured the barbershop chimney of NYOFCO; another particularly strong composition centered a quaint red barn behind a massive Synagro composter. A framed certificate announced that Houston Business Journal had declared Synagro number 93 among Houston’s “Top 100 Public Companies”.
A secretary led me past a bowl of mints to the boardroom and told me to wait for Mr Boucher. The conference table here was bigger than any other I had witnessed in my travels through wasteland, and a wooden podium branded with the Synagro logo stood at one end of the long room, flanked by an American flag and a Texas flag. A large oil painting of seven horses presided over the opposite wall: not the faces of the horses, but their rear ends. Next to the painting, Lucite tombstones memorialized mergers and acquisitions, the corporate nuggets Synagro had digested with the help of such investment bankers as Lehman Brothers and Donald-son, Lufkin & Jenrette.
I sat surrounded by gleaming trophies, freshly cut flowers, a crystal vase of potpourri, and a good deal of human waste. Strewn across the table lay Ziplocs of contractor’s compost, soil conditioner, seed cover, landscape mulch, All-Gro, and Biogran. On the floor near the podium reclined a huge paper sack of “Hou-Actinite – 100% natural organic fertilizer”, with its logo of a golf ball perched on the edge of a flagged hole. My eyes lingered over a jar of pellets labeled NYOFCO. From New York City. My pellets.
About this time, Robert Boucher walked into the room – no suit, no tie, clear blue eyes, and a Starbucks of iced green tea. We shook hands, then sat in silence. I had less than an hour and a long list of topics to cover, but before we could get to my questions we needed Alvin Thomas, Synagro’s chief legal counsel, Boucher had insisted we have a lawyer present for the interview, and I had some suspicion why: aside from a variety of human-waste-related litigation, Standard & Poor’s had recently downgraded Synagro’s corporate credit rating on $287 million of outstanding debt. There was plenty to be paranoid about and, as it turned out, a great deal to keep under wraps. A few months after I left Houston, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, The Carlyle Group, purchased Synagro Technologies for $776 million.
Robert Boucher grew up in Dover, New Hampshire – “117 miles of sewer lines and one wastewater treatment plant”, he said. His father sold garbage trucks, containers, and equipment, and Bob worked summers for Dad, cleaning out used cans and repainting them. He went to Northeastern to play offensive guard but soon dropped out and went to work in the family business.
A company called American Waste gave him his first stab at management, and Boucher began to ascend the corporate ladder. He eventually landed a job at Allied Waste, one of the largest general waste companies in America. This was big-money garbage, and Boucher found himself in charge of $1.5 billion in revenues. After he’d spent a number of years at Allied, bankers came knocking on his door. They recognized a man they could trust with the future, and they made Boucher chief operating officer of Synagro. In 2003, he became CEO.
I asked how he perceived human waste in terms of the US economy.
“I think of it from the service aspect”, said Boucher. “Running my business as efficiently as possible keeps our shareholders happy. Our customers are happy. Our bankers are happy.”
But what about the actual substance?
“The material we handle is tougher than garbage”, he said. “People don’t want to think about it. When you flush your toilet, you take it for granted – until the day it comes back at you. Then you have to deal with it. When you go to the commode, that’s the end of the process for you but the beginning for us. We make it go away.”
I told him that Roman and Saxon soothsayers believed they could prophesy through the art of scatomancie. Like those ancient adepts, could Boucher analyze the shape of human waste and predict the future?
“We handle material that not a lot of people are interested in today”, he said. “It’s a blocking-and-tackling-type business, a plug-along. Very utilitylike. It’s not sexy.”
Clearly, Boucher was evading the question. He did not want to let on about the car fuel and cement.
“How about energy?” I asked. “When would waste emerge as an alternative to gasoline?”
He told me that in Europe they burn it, which produces the same amount of energy as slag coal. Maybe 5,000 British thermal units per cubic pound. Then he lifted the glass of NYOFCO pellets. My pellets.
“Let’s get our arms around this”, he said. “I can’t tell you this is an energy business, from the standpoint of reusable fuel. There’s not enough volume.”
Not enough volume?
Boucher shook his head.
That took a while to sink in. Not enough volume meant no filling up the tank. No lightbulbs, “No lightbulbs”, said Boucher.
But what about big pharma? What about DEET and Chanel?
He shook his head.
No penicillin recovery? No decaffeinated sludge?
He shook his head.
What about metal reclamation”? Wasn’t this pellet some sort of renewable source of aluminum and chromium?
“It’s almost a non-detect”, said Boucher.
Clearly, he took me for a fool. He had plenty of reasons to conceal what he and his cronies were up to. He was playing dumb, and I was falling for it. His lawyer looked up from his notes and waited for my next question. What was my next question? I checked the list. What about building materials?
“It turned out not to be so cost-effective”, he said. “Land applications have been done forever because they make sense”.
I demanded that he prophesy.
“How far into the future?”
“Twenty years”, I said.
“Everyone wants the black box to make it disappear”, he said. “But that’s not what happens. One hundred years from now will they have iPods that make pellets? Sure. Apple will have bought us. They’ll have tie vapor box”. Then his voice dipped beneath sarcasm. “Twenty years is not enough. Twenty years is nothing.”
And he gave me the look. Perhaps he was appalled by my ignorance, perhaps he didn’t care, but he understood his product and knew the notion of its glorious future was but another symptom of our desire to deny. Despite the primitive and absurd fantasy that we might refine what lay dark within ourselves and reform it into something fabulous, there was no glorious future of waste. There was only this world of shit.
I had no more questions but could not bring myself to leave. So we sat without saying anything for a long time. Eventually, Boucher began to reminisce about first-class travel across America. He flew a lot, and whenever he took his seat on a plane the small talk would begin, and the question would arise: What do you do for a living?
“I tell them”, recalled Boucher. “And inevitably they say, ‘Wow. What a great business.'”
Frederick Kaufman is the author of A Short History of the American Stomach (Harcourt, 2008). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Debbie Does Salad”, appeared in the October 2005 issue.
Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/index.html