18. Wastewater Treatment Plants
Wastewater treatment plants made national news this month after the mayor of Danbury, CT (the city where Ethan was born) responded to a joke on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” by naming Danbury’s sewer plant the “John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant.” But in addition to being the ~butt~ of a joke, wastewater treatment plants have been responsible for some environmental issues. Today, we discuss a few of those issues from overflows to energy to microplastic contamination to antimicrobial resistance, what threats they pose to the economy and public health, and how we can improve wastewater treatment to make it the sustainable water sanitation solution it was designed to be. With special guest Dr. Patricia Keen: Visiting Assistant Professor of Energy Management at the New York Institute of Technology, Vancouver Campus.
After the unfolding of the John Oliver vs Danbury stuff, I Googled “sewage environmental impacts” and pretty quickly found some new and interesting research on the topic, from microplastics to energy to Dr. Keen’s research on antimicrobial resistance. On the one hand, I’m used to finding out that every single thing I can think of has an impact on the environment, to the point where a simple Google brings results. But as I learned more, I began feeling more and more like wastewater treatment was not an environmental bad, but an environmental good that just needed a push in a better direction. There weren’t really any sources laying out the intricacies of the issue on a platter unfortunately, so I was relieved when Dr. Keen confirmed that perception for me.
As far as issues relating to toxics go, that’s a big part of what intrigued me about wastewater treatment plants. Sure, they’re a toxics issue. But they’re also a toxics solution. If we look to parts of the world without a wastewater treatment plant, the problem is so much worse. I love issues like this, where the good and bad aren’t clear-cut. It allows the conversation to become more nuanced, and focus on improvements. Wastewater treatment plants might be good, but they can be better.
I was also struck by just how simple some of the solutions were. If some upfront investment could be arranged, wastewater treatment plants could go from a sizable fraction of a town’s energy bill to a self-sufficient entity that creates its own energy. To me, that’s an ultimate example of sustainability in action: meeting the needs of the current generation while protecting the needs of the future generation. It’s easy to forget, but both of those criteria must be met for something to be “sustainable.” So seeing such a strong case where one can protect the needs of the future while not only meeting the needs of the present, but meeting them at a ridiculously lower price tag, was pretty exciting.
Thanks for listening! Enjoy!