A Romantic Day at the “Shit Tits”

Photo by Renee Choi

“Everything you guys flush—we’re happy to receive it,” Plant Superintendent Zainool Ali told a seated crowd of about 100 people on Saturday. This was at the fourth annual Valentine’s Day tours of Greenpoint’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant: three sessions of 100+ people each, of all ages and backgrounds, united by their interest in the way our city processes our poop. Romantic, right?

number4

For some, it actually was kind of romantic, like Patty Reid, who came all the way from Long Island with her husband Jimmy and their 12-year-old son Jack. “I’m here because of Jimmy,” Patty said. “He’s retired now, but he worked in the industry for 26 years. On our honeymoon we toured a sewage treatment plant in Aruba!”

A far cry from Aruba, Newtown Creek is the largest of NYC’s 14 wastewater treatment facilities, processing up to 1.5 million gallons of raw sewage every day. The plant has been chugging along since 1967, but starting in 1998 it underwent a massive upgrade. Ten years and $5 billion later, it had become an award-winning, state-of-the-art facility including a visitors center, a nature walk around the upper tip of Greenpoint, and the massive, dramatic Digester Eggs—affectionately known as the Shit Tits. The Eggs were also the most exciting part of the Valentine’s Day tour: Attendees were whisked up to a viewing deck at the very top, treated to both a discussion about the plant’s functionality and some seriously spectacular views.

View from the tippy-top of the Digester Eggs

So what actually goes on in the Shit Tits? Well, the raw sewage from millions of New Yorkers is taken through multiple highly regulated steps in order to make it safe enough to be released back into the environment. The process mimics that found in nature—just on an incredibly accelerated, gargantuan scale.

First the sewage goes through a Screening Chamber to remove large debris: inorganic material like baby wipes, toilet paper, litter, and things you shouldn’t have flushed in the first place. Next sand and grit are filtered out using a centrifugal process—flinging the water to the sides while the solids move to the center. The liquid then moves into the Eggs, which are filled with bacteria and microorganisms that “digest” the biological content of the sewage. The tanks are continually aerated, because oxygen speeds the growth of the helpful bacteria that is working to consume the organic material. Next the water moves to the Disinfection Building, where it is basically bleached to remove any remaining pathogenic material, and finally it’s released into the East River. Part of the solids remain in the Eggs to process the next batch of sewage, and the rest is sent via Sludge Boats to a dewatering facility to further decrease its volume. The resulting “cake” can be used as fertilizer or soil conditioner.

A couple enjoying their romantic day at the sewage plant

The Eggs, in addition to being visually striking, are self-regulating and extremely efficient, generally keeping themselves balanced in terms of the proportions of bacteria to organic matter. The DEP is working on a pilot program involving the decommissioned Gravity Thickener Tanks—which were used pre-renovation to do the job the Digester Eggs now do—to process food waste from NYC schools. The resulting bioslurry will go into the Eggs, enhancing the food for the microorganisms. This will also improve the quality of the methane gas that’s a byproduct of the digestion process, and the DEP is working with National Grid to turn that into pipeline-quality gas to be fed back into NYC’s energy grid. “The best-case scenario is that when you get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, you’re generating the energy you’ll use to turn on the stove and heat up water for your coffee,” Ali said.

Peering down into the Digester Egg

Another major component of the renovation was in service of cleaning the air and controlling the smell—which was, indeed, pretty much nonexistent. James Pawlukiewicz, a lifelong Greenpointer, was there on his second tour, and he’d brought several neighborhood friends. “We wanted to see how the $5 billion was spent,” he said. His friend Helen Turling added, “It used to be so bad, you couldn’t come within 20 blocks of this place without gagging. Now you wouldn’t even know it’s a sewage treatment plant.”

Wandering atop the Shit Tits

Others who were newer to the neighborhood came to the tour with both a sense of duty and of whimsy. Graphic designer Allister Klingensmith was there with his girlfriend Kristin Neufeld, who works in advertising. “I’ve definitely always wanted to get on top of these big, shiny boobs,” Allister said. “But really, more people should learn about this sort of thing. I mean, everybody shits! We ought to know what happens to it.”

“Besides,” Kristin added, “there’s nothing more romantic than poop!”

Around Brooklyn

See More

1 COMMENT

  1. The title of the article is “Spend Valentine’s Day at the Shit Tits” but it sounds like that is not possible because the tour already happened on 2/6. Or will it happen again on Valentine’s Day?

LEAVE A REPLY