Sep 24, 2013

Poop Train

You may not give a second thought (or backward glance) to what the toilet whisks away after you do your business. But we got wondering -- where would we wind up if we thought of flushing as the start, and not the end, of a journey? In this short, we head out to trace the trail of sludge...from Manhattan, to wherever poop leads us.

This all started back when we were working on our Guts show, and author Frederick Kaufman told us about getting sucked in to the mystery of what happens to poop in New York City. Robert and producer Pat Walters decided to take Fred's advice and pay a visit to the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant... which turned out to be just the beginning of a surprisingly far-ranging quest.

Want some more sewer fun?

Read: As Robert and Pat report, some of that sewer sludge made it out into the ocean. Wonder what happened to it?

Play: Try out our Poop Quiz:

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JAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I’m Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab.


ROBERT: The podcast.


JAD: Okay, now the podcast.




JAD: Take it away, Kay.


ROBERT: It’s something you do everyday. You don’t think about it very much, but when you do it in New York City, strange things happen.

JAD: What is it -- what are you talking about?


ROBERT: It's got lots of teeth.


JAD: But are you going to tell me what it is?


ROBERT: Well, I can tell you that it all started with this guy. A writer who's been on the show a few times.

FREDERICK: I’m Frederick Kaufman, the author of Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food.


ROBERT: We brought him in to tell us a story about the human gut. This was a while back, remember when we were doing the Gut show?


JAD: This is a year or two ago?


ROBERT: It was a while back. It was during the Occupy Wall Street protests.


FREDERICK: So, I’ve been occupying Wall Street for about 30 years now.

ROBERT: Fred actually lives right near Wall Street.


FREDERICK: And someone took a shit right on my doorstep the other morning.


ROBERT: Really?


FREDERICK: Yeah, yeah. I had an Occupy Wall Street turd on my doorstep.


ROBERT: How do you know that it wasn’t, you know, some right wing ...


FREDERICK: It could’ve been a Tea Party turd. It could have been a Tea Party turd. I sent it to the lab for analysis.


ROBERT: It came out blue as opposed to red. And this whole poop on the stoop story ...

FREDERICK: This reminds me of a whole other series of stories ...


ROBERT: It sent Fred off on a significant rant.

FREDERICK: You don’t -- you don't get even the beginning of what’s going here.


ROBERT: About poop. So Fred told us that the first thing we had to do ...


FREDERICK: That North River Sewage Treatment Plant ...

ROBERT: Was we had to go to North River Wastewater Treatment Plant.


PAT: It’s just over on the Upper West Side of Manhattan

FREDERICK: Usually? How often do you come here?

ROBERT: So our Producer Pat Walters and I, we went up there.


PAT: Yup.


JAD: Why wasn’t I included in this adventure?


ROBERT: You weren’t -- I don’t know. Walters just muscled his way into position.


JAD: Walters. Again!


PAT: Anyway, we went up there and we ended up talking to this guy Steve.

PAT: He’s like the superintendent of the plant up there.


ROBERT: Steve is basically the eliminator. He eliminates a very significant portion of New York City's poop.


STEVE: We have a -- I think it’s a really neat job.

ROBERT: Consider the glory of this position.

STEVE: It’s pretty exciting because again, you really get to see this ...

PAT: Because Steve's at the beginning of a process that I think we all kind of know the outline of. But the details, and the places that New York City's poop in particular end up taking you are truly astonishing. So, the first thing that we learned is that in New York City, this whole wastewater treatment thing? It happens at an almost unbelievable scale.

ROBERT: How many gallons do we ...?


STEVE: About -- citywide, about 1.3 billion gallons.


ROBERT: Every ...?


STEVE: Every single day. That’s 7.45 pounds per gallon. That's, you know, seven billion pounds.

JAD: Wow!


ROBERT: Which is actually more than the weight of all the elephants on the planet.


JAD: What?




JAD: Come on!


ROBERT: We counted. We know. We interviewed the elephants.


JAD: [laughs]


ROBERT: But until 1986, we dumped pretty much all of it into the ocean or straight into the Hudson River.


STEVE: 1986, that’s like yesterday. You know, you can imagine the west side of Manhattan before 1986, all the sewage went into the river.


JAD: Unprocessed?


ROBERT: Unprocessed.


STEVE: Just went straight into the river untreated.

JAD: That blows my mind.


PAT: Yeah, it was not a good situation. But by 1986, the city had built several treatment plants, including this one, which happens to be the biggest.


ROBERT: It’s a very impressive building with trees on top, and soccer fields. And I watched it get built, it’s right near my neighborhood. So kids played soccer up there.


JAD: They played soccer on top of the poop place?




JAD: Did you have any sense of what lies inside that building?


ROBERT: No! I had no -- oh, no.

STEVE: We’re gonna walk according to the process, all right?


ROBERT: In the walking tours I’ve had of New York City, this beats everything.


ROBERT: So we're gonna enter through the doors marked “Exit.” That’s always a good way to start.


ROBERT: So imagine park land on top, and a kind of open framework -- sort of like a parking garage.


PAT: And we’re, like, up on the top level, with the treatment plant itself underneath us. And Steve walks us over to this manhole cover, opens it up and ...


STEVE: ... come here and look down and see ...


PAT: And we look down.


STEVE: That's where the water comes in.


ROBERT: Well below the highways, I mean there’s this …


STEVE: It's like a river.


ROBERT: ... river of everything.


PAT: It's this roiling, brown torrent way below us.

STEVE: The bottom of that channel is a hundred feet down.


PAT: And so the first thing Steve has to do is, like, get it up out of there.


STEVE: We pump it up a hundred feet, and it cascades down through the rest of the process, ultimately back to the river.


PAT: And at this point ...


ROBERT: It becomes a series of waterfalls.


ROBERT: Sounds like Niagara!


STEVE: Yeah. That's exactly right.


PAT: Pouring down below us through this eight-storey staircase of pools, almost like terraced lakes.

STEVE: Look how high that is. Each part of the process is lower.


PAT: And each pool has its own job. Starting from the top, there’s, like, one room where they just skim the oil off the surface.


STEVE: Fats, oils and greases float to the top and we skim them off.

PAT: So it flows down again.

STEVE: So we’re gonna walk down ...

PAT: ... into this enormous wide open space.

PAT: This is impressive. This feels very, very big.


STEVE: It’s a big, long gallery. Yeah, yeah.

PAT: Like a huge rectangular lake.

PAT: An indoor lake, kind of.


STEVE: That’s correct.


PAT: Of warm sewage.


STEVE: So if the air temperature is -- is cold enough, the vapor condenses on the cold concrete and it rains inside the building.


ROBERT: Really!


STEVE: If it's really cold ...


ROBERT: It rains? Or you mean drips.


STEVE: Call it whatever. It condenses and comes down in droplets. That’s the definition of rain. And it's all be soaking wet in here, 'cause it's raining. And if it’s really cold, that vapor freezes and we’ll have snow on the floor. All right?


ROBERT: You've got a real climate thing ...


PAT: Meanwhile in the lake, the sludgy stuff kind of settles down to the bottom. And gets sent along down to another level, to the next step. And as you go down deeper and deeper, eventually you get to this one room that’s, like, weirdly, kind of beautiful.

ROBERT: It had a kind of dome-like top, and there was -- there was a big pond in front of you.

STEVE: It’s frothy, it’s alive. It's got a nice light tan color to it.

ROBERT: The pond was brimming with life!


STEVE: So now it becomes a biological process.


PAT: One that is spookily similar to what happens in our own stomachs.

STEVE: We heat it to 98 degrees, lo and behold, it's coming from humans.

PAT: And this is where they add a bunch of bacteria to the sewage.


STEVE: The sewage is actually food to this bacteria.


PAT: And then Steve adds other bacteria to eat those bacteria.


STEVE: They're eating each other. The acid formers eat the complex proteins and carbohydrates, and the methane formers eat the acid formers and then ...


ROBERT: It's a huge cannibal fest, everyone's eating ...


STEVE: Everything's eating everything else.


PAT: And not just bacteria.


ROBERT: There were little mayflies and bugs crawling on the surface. And everywhere around the room there were enormous populations of ...


ROBERT: Spiders.


STEVE: Spiders.


ROBERT: Spiders. They're all over the place!


STEVE: Spiders eat the -- the midges. The midges eat the sludge. The spiders eat the midges, and if this was an outdoor plant, we’d have birds eating the spiders. It's a whole ecosystem. That's exactly right.

JAD: Wow!


ROBERT: So New York City has, in its water treatment plant, a rainforest filled with animals.

PAT: But, of course, the product of all this ...


ROBERT: If you go through that door, which it says ...


STEVE: You’re gonna smell something.


PAT: Is disgusting.


PAT: Oh, yeah. Oh! It’s so bad, I just want to smell more of it.


PAT: 'Cause what you’re left with is this thick soup of, like, super-concentrated sewage.

ROBERT: How much do you smell? You smell it on -- I have it on my tongue.


STEVE: Oh yeah, no it smells. No, no, it smells. Let’s get out of here.

PAT: And once you have that soup, you take that ...


STEVE: We put it through a centrifuge where we mechanically spin it.


ROBERT: A salad spinner?


STEVE: Well, it's kind of like the spin cycle in your washing machine.


ROBERT: It basically sweats out all the additional moisture.


STEVE: And what I’m left with is, like, real concentrated, like 30 percent solid. It's like moist soil.


PAT: A ton of it.

STEVE: There’s 125 million gallons of it.


PAT: And if you want to, like, try to picture that in your mind -- I did -- that much sludge, that's what this stuff is called, would fill the Rose Bowl. I’m not even a football fan, but just, like, picture a big college football stadium filled with this concentrated sewage sludge. And that’s what Steve’s left with at the end of every single day. Which leads to the obvious question.


STEVE: What do I do with that stuff?


PAT: And this is where the story takes a really strange turn.


ROBERT: This is where things got a little, how would you put it?


PAT: Got a little emotional.


ROBERT: Emotional.


PAT: Mike, can you hear me?


MIKE: Yeah, I can hear you, Pat.


PAT: Ended up tracking down this guy named Mike.


MIKE: Mike Scharp.


PAT: Who was hired to answer this question. Like, what do we do with New York City's processed sewage sludge? He says for awhile ...


MIKE: They hauled it 103 miles out in the ocean and dumped it.


PAT: Just like before. But ...


MIKE: Eventually what happened was …


PAT: In 1988, the government ...


MIKE: Banned all ocean disposal of waste.

PAT: And because New York City had been dumping so much of this stuff in the ocean for so long, the EPA said not only do you have to stop dumping in the ocean, you have to find something good to do with some of it.


STEVE: Beneficial reuse of biosolids.


PAT: This is our sewage guy Steve again. And he says you can use the sludge as ...


STEVE: Fertilizer. You can use it as fertilizer.


PAT: Steve told us that lots of cities do this.

STEVE: There's a product -- you can go to Home Depot and buy a bag of Milorganite.


PAT: What's that?


STEVE: Milorganite is biosolids from Milwaukee.


PAT: So when you buy a bag of Milorganite and spread it over your tomatoes, you're actually using treated poop from the people of Milwaukee.


STEVE: They've marketed it for retail sale.


PAT: And this is basically where Mike comes in. It was his job to sell our sludge.


MIKE: So off I went.


JAD: Is this, like, a thing he does?


PAT: Yeah, he'd done it in other places for other towns. But this time it didn't go the way it usually does. He doesn't remember exactly who he approached first, but state ...


MIKE: Alabama.


PAT: ... after state ...


MIKE: Ohio.


PAT: ... after state ...


MIKE: Indiana.


PAT: Said no.


MIKE: I can remember one state, and I won't even mention who, but you know, the comment was made, "You're not going to get New York City here. Don't even think about it."


STEVE: There were towns that would accept biosolids from every city in the planet except New York City.


MIKE: Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama.


STEVE: We don't want New York City biosolids.


PAT: Oh, like ours is worse?


STEVE: We don't want city slicker biosolids.


PAT: The objections were all over the map. The sludge will have toxins in it, or disease, or, like, who knows? You know, it'll have the city in it. Even though technically when they tested it, it was no different than the sludge from anywhere else.


STEVE: It's the same stuff.

PAT: But ...


MIKE: Illinois.


PAT: ... over ...


MIKE: Kansas.


PAT: ... and over again ...


MIKE: Kentucky.


PAT: He heard the same thing.


MIKE: Don't think you're ever gonna get New York City permitted here.


PAT: I feel a little -- I haven't even lived here that long and I feel insulted.


STEVE: Yeah, no. So it's -- it's, if you're a resident of New York, it's us. It's a collective effort here. You know ...


MIKE: There was a prejudice against New York City versus almost any other sludge in the country.


PAT: And I should mention that at a certain point, Mike started offering to give this stuff away for free. And still, nobody wants it. Until ...


MIKE: It was kind of just one of those flukes of life.


PAT: He got to Colorado.


MIKE: I got lost coming out of the airport.


PAT: Huge thunderstorm.

MIKE: Thought I was going north, ended up going south.


PAT: And all of a sudden he's ...

MIKE: Yeah, about 75 miles east of Denver.


PAT: You went -- you went pretty far south!


MIKE: Like I said, I was lost in a big thunderstorm, and went to the first town and found a hotel.


PAT: Anyway next morning, he wanders down to the coffee shop, gets to talking with some guy, and telling him, "I've got all this sludge in New York City and I just want to put it on a train and bring it out to the farms in Colorado.


MIKE: His response is, "You're going to do what?"


PAT: Typical reaction.

MIKE: You're gonna put something from New York City on a railcar and haul it all the way out here?


PAT: But then he paused and said, "Keep talking."


MIKE: And we talked about the concept.


PAT: And before Mike knew it he'd found a place that would accept New York City's unwanted sludge.

WAYNE: Fertilizer's fertilizer. That plant doesn't care what -- what it comes from.


PAT: This is Wayne.


WAYNE: Wayne Shultz.

PAT: He ended up running the operation in Colorado.


WAYNE: Our track out there would hold 17 train cars.


PAT: And this is how the New York City poop train began. A couple days before Earth Day 1992, several thousand tons of New York City sludge left the Big Apple, headed for Lamar, Colorado. 1,600 miles away. But it wasn't exactly an immediate success.


JOHN: Well, I think ...


PAT: The whole thing started out pretty small.


JOHN: Initially, there was just three or four farms that were using it.


PAT: This guy's one of the first farmers to start using it.

JOHN: Sure, my name is John Stulp.


PAT: And John says he remembers, early on ...


JOHN: The public was invited to come out ...


PAT: And comment on what they thought about the biosolids.

JOHN: And it conjured up some very strong emotions. One person said something that they were concerned if any of this got spilled out of the trucks transporting it onto the highway, that it would probably eat a hole in the asphalt and have to be treated like a nuclear disaster site.


MIKE: And there were people who said their horse had died from biosolids.


WAYNE: I never heard the horse story, but I can tell you one about a cow.


JOHN: You know, I think it's typical that people are always suspicious of something that's from far away. There was a salsa commercial about that time. The cowboys threw the cook out of camp basically because they were upset because the salsa he was serving was made in New York City.

PAT: And that's kinda how it was. But then, the farmers who were using it started to notice that it was kinda awesome.


WAYNE: I remember going to a farmer's field.


PAT: Not long after he'd started using the biosolids ...


WAYNE: The previous wheat crop was 40 bushel.


PAT: But after using the biosolids?


WAYNE: He cut 66 bushel wheat.


PAT: His crop increased by a third.

WAYNE: You never hear of 66 bushel.


PAT: John says they started to notice other little things about it, too.


JOHN: We had a lot of trouble with an aphid called the Russian wheat aphid. But we saw an interesting thing with a couple neighbors east of me, that ...


PAT: When they put the biosolids on their field, it kept the aphids away. And it wasn't just aphids.


WAYNE: We have a big prairie dog problem out here.


PAT: One farmer told Wayne, when he put biosolids on his field, they ...


WAYNE: They packed up and moved across to the neighbor. And he thought it was the human scent.


PAT: And as word got out, Wayne started getting calls from all over the county.


WAYNE: Well, put me on the list, put me on the list. I want some of that.


JOHN: There was a waiting list.


PAT: Because as the New York City biosolids had gained acceptance in Colorado, other states had started picking them up, too.


WAYNE: I had a list of 50 farmers wanting the product.


PAT: And after a few years, they were getting a trainload pretty much every week.


WAYNE: The most in a month ...


PAT: Sometimes two.


WAYNE: Was 153 train cars.


PAT: Wasn't always quite that much.


JOHN: It would ebb and flow depending on the flow of biosolids.

PAT: But Mike says, on average ...

MIKE: We covered maybe 10,000 acres a year. And we had enough demand to cover -- I mean, farmer demand, that we could easily cover 50 to 75,000 acres a year.


PAT: And here is what I think is the most amazing part of this whole story. You take a farmer like John, who accounts for a big chunk of those acres. John's growing wheat.


JOHN: Yes. The hard, red winter wheat.


PAT: And the wheat?


JOHN: Goes primarily into bread-type of products.


PAT: A lot of bread-type products.


JOHN: With a pound of wheat, roughly just a rule of thumb is you get about a loaf of bread.


PAT: And if you do some quick math, he said you get about 2,000 pounds of wheat from each acre that you farm. So that's 2,000 loaves of bread per acre, times the 10,000 acres that the biosolids were on.


JOHN: So just keep adding zeroes. And so we're up into the -- around 20 million loaves of bread or something like that.


PAT: And that's each year. So we're talking hundreds of millions of loaves of bread, which means, John says ...


JOHN: You may well have eaten a -- a slice of bread that had a grain or two of wheat that come from our farm.


PAT: And so like, in some small but very real sense, that's a slice of bread that we helped make with the stuff that we, like, make.


JOHN: Biosolids from New York come from the bread that they ate that went into their sewer system and end up in their wastewater treatment plant and ended up in Colorado, and then, you know, the cycle begins again. The ultimate in recycling.


FREDERICK: This is a magical thing.


PAT: That's Fred again. The writer from the beginning of the story.


ROBERT: It's really going from -- from a straight line, make it go away, and never return, to a circle.


FREDERICK: The end is in the beginning.


PAT: But it turns out that's not the end of the story.

WAYNE: Since I turned off utilities and locked the doors.


PAT: Couple of weeks ago, we sent a reporter out to Colorado to hang out with Wayne.

REPORTER: All I'm seeing here is a bunch of empty buildings.


WAYNE: These are our buildings.


REPORTER: Empty. Everything's shut down.


WAYNE: Everything's shut down.


PAT: And what she found is that the circle had become a straight line again.


WAYNE: Wished I could shown it when it was in operation.


PAT: Wayne told her that for a long time, things were great.


WAYNE: At one time, the summer of '07, I had 26 employees. Everybody hoppin'. And it was slowly -- New York had come in and, well you gotta cheapen up your price. We've got -- somebody else will do this cheaper. And the economy, prices of diesel fuel, the railroad cost of transportation. Just slowly, it got down to four employees and myself. And all they have to do is send you a 30-day written notice and your contract's gone. That's what happened. But you know, everything's bottom line.


MIKE: I remember the last day, our last load, which happened to be 20 years to the day after of first load showing up. Our first load showed up on Earth Day, 1992. And our last load showed up April 22, 2012. And we sat there and watched the last load be spread across the farm ground there.


WAYNE: Yeah. They have asked me, if -- if something happens, would I be interested in manage it, and I of course told them yes. But I'm not sitting around holding my breath. What New York does with it now, they go to landfills. They mix it with garbage and they bury it in landfills. Like I said, it's kinda sad to come in and see it now. Nothing.


JAD: Wait, hold on a second. I mean, I obviously feel for Wayne and all those people who lost their jobs. But it sounds -- it sounded to me a little nuts from the beginning, that we would put our -- our bio -- whatever it's called, on a train and put it all the way to Colorado. That's just -- that must cost a lot of money.

PAT: Yeah, it's kinda nuts. I mean, it's costing, like, millions of dollars. And we've always put some of it in a landfill. It's just that now we put about half of it into landfill and half of it into, like, abandoned stripmines, and none of it goes to Colorado.


ROBERT: Well, how -- how much would -- are we saving by not putting it on trains and sending it across the country? Like, what's the ...


PAT: Well, like, so according to Mike and Wayne, it's about half as expensive to put it in a landfill as it was to send it to Colorado, which sounds like a lot. But if you add it up, if you add up the cost of -- of sending all this stuff that we were sending to Colorado, and you add up the cost of the landfill and you do the subtraction, and you divide it across, like, let's just say, eight million people? It cost -- it would cost you, Robert Krulwich, about 25 cents a month to send it back.

JAD: That's it?


ROBERT: For a quarter?


PAT: For a quarter.


JAD: God, that's nothing, I would've expected the answer to be a lot more than that.


PAT: Me too.


JAD: Come on New York, do the right thing!


ROBERT: Can we store our own ...


JAD: Pride.


PAT: Pride.


JAD: Integrity, you know?


ROBERT: And integrity in -- in the fields of Colorado.


PAT: Yeah, we could close the circle again.


ROBERT: Close the circle.