Closing the Loop


Water: the universal solvent, the symbol of purity. It’s all well and good when it’s pulsing from your Swiss shower head or steaming off a heap of stones in the sauna. But when you’re standing in a puddle of dish scraps and shit, and the gusher that’s sprung up from your neighbor’s sewer line shows no sign of abating, water—formless and fast-moving and unstoppable—is the essence of evil.

Or so it seemed to me as I stood in the restaurant next to my own, trying desperately to solve its problem—an overflowing sewage line—before it became my problem.

The neighboring restaurant had been abandoned for a month or so, the owners kicked out for not paying rent, and the place had an eerie feel, left behind as though by the rapture: tables set for service, kitchen ready to fire up and go, the lights on the stereo still flickering. And, tucked in the floor of a coat closet, a bad sewage trap, which took advantage of its time alone to develop from a garden-variety clog into a minor industrial catastrophe. We noticed it when our own drains started emptying slowly.

“We gotta get in next door,” our plumber said. I called our landlord, hoping he could swing by on his way home from work. But a woman I didn’t know answered the phone—the landlord was on vacation and she was taking his messages until he got back. He was gone a month. To China.

It took two days of desperate international negotiations to get me into the restaurant—the offer of a meal and the promise of a swift resolution had finally swayed the landlord’s proxy. “Come down. I’ll buy you dinner, and it’ll be all over in an hour or so, I’m sure.” She relented, brought me the key, and settled in to steak frites at the French restaurant down the block.

Six hours later she’d gone home, leaving me with the key. It was one in the morning and I was standing in a room filled with everything that had washed down our drain or gone down our toilets in the last 24 hours. Let your imagination take the darkest possible turn and you’ll have some idea of the scene: a sodden carpet, a quiver of ruined mops, mounds of paper towels, scraps of lettuce, human excrement, toilet paper dissolved to pulp.

And the plumber shaking his head, flummoxed. He’d jetted the trap twice, inspected the line with a miniature video camera, and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. All we knew was that any flow we managed to get lasted only long enough to clear the trap. Ten minutes later it’d clog again. The plumber was out of patience.

Then, “Ho, wait a minute,” he said suddenly, suddenly sounding sure of himself again. “I bet it’s on the city end. I bet the damn city main is backed up.” He called a guy on the city crew he said owed him, and we sat down on the bench outside to wait. The soles of our shoes were glistening with filth. It was quiet and the sidewalks were empty. He told me about where he went to eat with his wife, how he was trying to lose weight, what sorts of weird things he’d found in sewer lines—drugs, dead animals, body parts. And we waited for the DEP to show up.

After an hour, they came—like the cavalry, with Klieg lights and big trucks and road cones. They shut down the street and strode to the manhole covers, which they threw to the side like misplaced Frisbees. They shone their giant flashlights down the hole and beckoned us. “Yo, Chris. Check this out. What do you see?”

We peered in. It was a moment of humiliation for Chris—he’d brought in the big guns, and the city line was perfectly clear.

But for me it was a moment of wonder: There, 10 feet below the surface of the road, was a grim river that carried all the waste from our block, from Bedford Avenue, from who knows where. It rippled below us all day and all night, carrying garbage disposal puree, the Wesson oil you spilled in the sink, the latex paint you washed out of your brush, suds from your Kiehls, and everything you sent down the drain. It was the effluvia of a dozen restaurants, every corner deli, dry cleaners, nail salons and hundreds of apartments. It was like having 10,000 secrets exposed to you at once.

It would be stretching the truth to say that I had a vision there, though the fumes I’d inhaled that night might well have induced one. But what I saw changed the way I thought about water in the city, about garbage, sewage and even the farms that grow our food. And it came back to me in full glory a month later as I sat in a soil science class at the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s winter conference.

Much of the talk at the conference came back to the idea of “closing the loop,” as in the biodynamics seminar I’d taken on my first day. There the emphasis had been on the “closed farm organism”—using perennials, crop rotation and managed grazing to end your dependence on “external inputs”—fertilizers and soil amendments brought in from off the farm. “It’s OK if you’re not there yet,” the biodynamicists assured us. “But that’s the ideal; that’s what you want to try to achieve.”

But the next day, in a class taught by two Cornell soil scientists, we were hearing the opposite approach: Test your soil regularly, find out what’s missing, and buy the minerals, fertilizers and other amendments you need to compensate, just as you’d take an iron supplement if you found you were anemic. There was no mention of “closing the loop” here—instead it was all pH levels and micronutrient content.

And then an arm shot up toward the back of the room—a dreadlocked young man with a knit tam-o’-shanter, boots still crusted with mud. “I hear you talking a lot about adding chemicals and whatnot to your soil,” he said. “Can you talk a little bit about closing the loop?”

“How do you mean?” asked the professor.

“I don’t believe we should be bringing in all these things when we could be creating them ourselves with compost and manure. It just doesn’t seem sustainable.”

But the Cornell scientists weren’t having it. “OK,” said one, his voice swelling with the certainty of impending victory. “Are you selling your crops?”

“Yeah, we have a CSA and we do three markets—”

“Mm-hmm.” The professor cut him off sharply. “So then you’re taking literally tons of nutrients out of your system. Unless you recapture all the waste at the other end, there is no closed loop.”

“But we compost all our scraps,” objected the farmer.

The Cornell scientist looked at his co-presenter and laughed. “I mean the whole waste stream,” he said. “Unless you’re capturing all the … uh … human waste that’s generated by the people eating your food, you’ve got a broken cycle and a net loss of nutrients.” He turned back to his notes and carried on with his chemistry lecture.

The hippie looked a little stunned. And so was I. Because I realized that what he was talking about, essentially, was shit. Below all the chemistry and biology, underneath the romantic cycles we talked about in the biodynamics seminar, there was a simple, oft-elided fact: Excreting, too, is an agricultural act.

Between my glimpse into the Styx that runs beneath the streets of Brooklyn and the hard lesson of nutrient loss that the Cornell scientists delivered, I could see that there was a trip to the sewage treatment plant in my future. I was guilty as anyone of considering the toilet nothing more than a porcelain portal into another world, and as far as I was concerned what happened in that other world could stay there. Surely someone had it all figured out. Right? Water still flowed down from the mountains to the fields and the reservoirs and gushed out of our taps and brewed our coffee and stewed our chickens and ran down our drains and ended up in the rivers and evaporated back into billowing clouds that scudded across the oceans to repeat the whole cycle—didn’t it?

Or were we just slowly extracting all the nutrition from our soil and sending it through our intestines and out to sea? Were there trenches under the ocean slowly filling with human sludge, troughs of nutrients that had spent millennia accumulating in our topsoil now collecting deep underwater where we’d never recover them? Were we literally flushing away the future health of our food?

After St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is the most conspicuous architectural feature of Greenpoint. I’ve driven past the campus—55 acres, just west of McGuinness Avenue—many times, and I spent a year working about a block away from it. But mostly it remained inscrutable—mysteriously beautiful steel eggs rising up from lapis lazuli bases. They glow at night like old vacuum tubes. There’s a tiled waterfall in a glassy lobby just inside the entrance. There are art exhibits, dance performances and a nature tour. Jonathan Swift would love this, the preening structures and their reeking function, our city’s toilet gussied up in the loveliest postmodern style.

The treatment plant offers tours once a month. I went on Valentine’s Day, and what I saw gave me a sliver of hope. Inside those gleaming eggs—anaerobic digesters, technically—the shit and vomit of 1.5 million people brew and churn and decompose. They’re mixed in with everything else that gets dumped in the sink, nudged down the shower drain, kicked into the gutter: 300 million gallons of wastewater gush into the plant every single day, piped in from parts of Brooklyn, a third of Manhattan and a sliver of Queens. It’s filtered, refiltered, run through a centrifuge and pumped into the eggs to be digested by beneficial bacteria.

The treatment process, when it works, extracts all the garbage and sludge from the sewage supply. The water it pumps back into the East River is cleaner than the East River itself. The sludge that’s extracted from the water is decomposed in the digester eggs, then packed on to barges and sent off to dehydration centers around the city until it’s reduced to a thick compound cheerfully called “cake.” The cake, known more technically as “biosolids,” is then safe to put back on land. It’s used to backfill decommissioned strip mines or to remediate other places where soil has been depleted—post-industrial sites, for example. It’s a fertile medium for plants to grow in, and the best of it is even sold as an amendment for gardens and farms.

So: it’s a cycle after all, no? Clean water back to sea, where it continues on its age-old process of evaporation, condensation and precipitation. Organic materials return to the earth—if not to the very field they came from, at least where they can do some good.

But of course there is a catch: Biosolids aren’t as clean and pure as, say, composted manure from pastured cows. All the things we pour down the drain that don’t break down—the solvents, the poisons, the medications—they end up in that soil, too. In some cases the consequences are unknown: We don’t even have ways to measure their effects. In others, the consequences are known and we live with them: traces of carcinogenic heavy metals, for example, like cadmium and thallium.

And in some cases, we just don’t know what to do. Clearly we want a system that returns nutrients to soil—but not one that fills the soil with toxins, too. Any of us who cares about food better be thinking about what we’re pouring down the drain, what we’re flushing down the toilet. Ultimately we all shit where we eat.

In the end, it took a different plumber with a far more primitive machine about 15 minutes to clear our lines for good. We installed an electric hand dryer to keep people from flushing paper towels—the most common cause of plumbing problems, we were told. We put better filters in our dish pit so that more of our food scraps would end up in the compost bin than in the water line—simple things that made a big difference.

And the abandoned restaurant reopened, clean as a whistle, the new owners oblivious to the armageddon they’d missed. Like all of us, surrounded by the waste we’ve made but blind to it all until it rises up to greet us.

Illustration by Peter J. Ahlberg
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