While the North Brooklyn Boat Club inspects what lurks beneath the waters of Newtown Creek every Halloween, we thought we’d take a deep dive (theoretically) into what looms above them: The Digester Eggs, those award winning industrial landmarks on the Brooklyn-Queens Border. The Digester Eggs are primarily concerned with what happens after New Yorkers finish their own digesting. Hallmarks of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest of 14 wastewater treatment plants in New York City, the Digester Eggs handle 1.4 million gallons of “sludge” and food-waste daily from across Brooklyn and much of Manhattan.
But what’s sludge, you ask? According the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, sludge refers to organic solids. The Department’s website explains, “Inside the digesters – given heat, lack of oxygen and time, bacteria break down the sludge into more stable materials. This natural process converts much of the sludge into water, carbon dioxide and methane gas, leaving what is called ‘digested sludge.’ This material, in turn, is dewatered to form a cake, which, after additional processing, can be used as fertilizer.” And in an interview with City and State New York, Pam Elardo, the deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment, adds that since “methane gas is a very important energy resource,” NYC has teamed up with National Grid “to put that gas directly into their regional pipeline, which then will be going to people’s homes so they can cook their dinner, and then use their toilets, and then put the waste in our system. Then we’ll create more gas from that and then it’s a full circle.”
The whole process is a based on organic biology. Elardo explains, “what we do is we use biology. We set up conditions to bring a biological community to these treatment plants that actually consume the organic matter. If you think about it this way, if a bear poops in the woods, their poop will eventually become soil because all this bacteria that lives in the environment will degrade that waste. So we’re taking something that takes weeks in the natural environment, and make it happen within a few hours within the treatment plant.”
If this process of decomposition and regeneration seems elegant, than the Department has done its job well. NYC DEP touts the Digester Eggs as an “elegant combination of engineering and art,” elaborating that “Lighting designer Hervé Descottes used a layer of blue light to identify and unify the water treatment plant and to set it apart from the surrounding city. He also used other lights as well. Bright white lights define the plant’s various functional areas, such as the loading docks, which blaze in contrast to the blue monochromatic field. Shimmering lines, some of them yellow, are used to demarcate pedestrian walkways and to contrast with the blue light.”
And it turns out that you can help the city’s most elegant wastewater treatment plant stay classy by being conscientious about what you flush. Elardo says, “The problem we have is people do flush a lot of things that shouldn’t be in the toilet. Even if it says “flushable” on the box, if it’s not toilet paper, it should not be flushed. So what happens is all those baby wipes, and facial wipes, and Clorox bleach wipes and whatever makeup stuff that people flush – tampons, condoms, everything – it comes to the plant. We have to screen out that debris before we put it into the treatment plant. We do our best to screen it out, and we spend over $7 million a year hauling off just stuff that gets stuck in our screen. Even with the screens, a lot of (those) rags, and baby wipes, and facial stuff gets through the screens and ends up clogging pipes.”
If you’d like to get a closer look at those pipes, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Center hosts tours three times a year, in February, April and October. The Visitor Center at 329 Greenpoint Avenue is open by appointment only. To visit, call 718-595-5140.