4 Surprising Lessons from Our Gross Sewage Treatment Plant Tour

Last week, my son was playing with a fortune teller that he found in an activity book. It predicted what amazing vacation he had in his future. It had destinations like Disney World and Paris, but his destination ended up being “A smelly sewage works.” This was hilarious to us because last week we actually had a homeschool group field trip to . . . our local sewage treatment plant!

201605 science field trip

At the water treatment facility, we had a full sewage treatment plant tour of the various water treatment cells, as well as introduction to the science lab where testing occurs. My son and I had read the Magic School bus book about the trip to the waterworks in the past, so some of it was delightfully familiar! We still learned so much from the tour! While it was, admittedly, rather smelly, it was eye opening in so many ways.

Really, everyone should experience a science field trip like this at some point! The good thing is that every community is sure to have a wastewater treatment facility. My only caveat is that younger kids must be restrained so they won’t run around, as there are huge 20-foot deep containers of gross waste water being treated around every corner. For this reason, I left my super-active 4-year-old daughter at a friend’s house this time around. She probably would not have appreciated the tour as much as a school-aged child.

Here are the things we learned from this super gross science field trip.

What goes around, comes around. The water cycle is truly that: a cycle. The same water that we have coming from our faucets was the water that dinosaurs drank, that someone bathed in 100 years ago, that rained into the gutter a few months ago, and so forth. Water is water the world around. We need it for dozens of uses and we will continue needing it and using it. There is gross stuff in the influent (the water that comes in to the facility) and while we still might not want to drink the effluent (the water that leaves the facility), it is safe for animals to live in and drink from. It’s really still the same water. Note: our city has separate water treatment plants for the sewage cleaning and the water cleansing process for that which comes from our faucets.

Visiting the sewage water treatment plant taught us a lot about how we can better take care of our own environment right from home!
I was amazed by all the science in action at the sewage treatment plant!

Science makes the world go around. When one thinks of the possible grossest jobs in the world, treating waste water is probably one of them. Yet, so much of this dirty job requires science.
A scientist must test the water as it comes and goes. The science of gravity deals with sorting the solids from non-solids. Centrifugal force (physics) does yet more work in the process of separating the yuck from the pure water. And biology is essential to the waste water process because it is small micro-organisms that removes much of the gross waste from the water. By studying the water on a microscopic level, one can determine how much longer is needed to fully clean the water. In a sense, it is only time that is necessary to fully cleanse the water enough to allow it to be released back in the wild. Micro-organisms do the dirtiest work of all.

Out of sight, out of mind. But that doesn’t mean it is gone. For the water treatment plant, solids are solids. Those solids need to be removed from the water. Flushing something does not mean it is gone. It definitely goes some where. The first step at the treatment plant was taking the very large solids out of the water and trucking them to the dump. Let me just say: these large, non-organic solids are pretty gross. Think carefully before you flush something that is not organic. I admit that I’ve thought in the past that if I simply wash something down the garbage disposal, it is taken care of. Egg shells, orange peels, bread crusts. All of that goes down the drain, is ground up really small, and then washes away. No worries. But even those minuscule bits of orange peel need to be removed from the water before the waste treatment plant can release the water back in to the wild. True, orange peel is natural and organic. What happens to it? Along with human waste, all of these solids are composted for at least 20 days. Eventually, these solids can be used as fertilizer (which the city must pay to be taken). It does not disappear: it goes somewhere.

The human impact on our environment is huge. Everyone poops. Everyone pees. Everyone bathes and washes. It rains. We scrub our cars and wash off paint brushes. All that dirty water has to go somewhere. It was fascinating to learn about how nature naturally cleans up. The micro-organisms in the environment can digest the dangerous things in waste water. That is what happens in the lakes and rivers around me. After all, animals leave their waste too. But because our suburban town has so many people, nature needs help in cleaning up our big messes. Hence, the multi-acre sewage treatment plant is a necessity to our community. Learning about the complex process of cleaning up at the sewage treatment plant helps me consider more carefully just what I’m putting down the drain.Our tour of the water treatment plant was gross but it was surprising how much we learned!

Have you ever had a tour of a water treatment plant? Gross as it is, I highly recommend it!

If your local community facility does not allow for tours, check out this video for a less smelly overview!

Tour a wastewater treatment plant in seven minutes from Wally Waterdrop on Vimeo.

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