It wasn't until last Saturday that the mystery of the smell was finally solved. If you weren't aware, last weekend was the popular event Doors Open Milwaukee, which opened up 175+ sites all over the city of Milwaukee for tours, freelance exploration, and other fun adventures. I had never participated in the event before, and was curious to see what the day had to offer. There was one particular event, a tour of the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility, that sparked my interest, partially because I have a very limited knowledge of the process of water reclamation and water treatment, and partially because it looked like the most pleasantly weird tour of the whole weekend. I managed to recruit my mom, who is always a good sport when it comes to strange adventures, to accompany me on this excursion.
Considering how hard it was for me to find someone who wanted to go with me, I was a little bit surprised when the event was PACKED. And I mean packed. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we knew we would not be alone. Babies, children, teenagers, adults - you name it - had all braved the weird, industrial maze on Milwaukee's south shore to satisfy their curiosity about where our poop goes. It was awesome.
We waited a few minutes before a yellow school bus pulled up to take us to the facilities. We were then told we would have the option of taking a half hour bus tour of Jones Island, or an hour long bus/walking tour of Jones Island and the Milorganite plant. My mom and I of course opted for the longer tour and waited just a few minutes to get onto another bus. While we waited, we walked a hand painted maze that presented a visual of the steps that our waste takes from the time we flush it down the toilet to the time it gets formed into a tiny pellet called Milorganite.
As we walked the maze a worker at the facility approached us and started asking us what attracted us to this tour. He was a very nice man, and I wondered what attracts someone to this kind of work. The conversation soon led us to talk of selling our Great Lakes water to Waukesha, and of wars over water in the not so distant future. It was strange to have such a grim conversation on such a bright, sunny day.
Finally, it was our time to go on the bus for our first part of the tour, Jones Island, to learn about the water reclamation process. I didn't get great pictures because we were sitting on a bus, but I'll try and explain it the best I can without visuals.
The first step of the process is called "screening." In this step, inorganic material such as towels, sand (and, although they didn't mention it, tampons and other gross things) are cleaned from the water. These materials cannot be reclaimed or reused in any way, and are sent to a landfill.
The second step is called "primary clarification." In this step, the water is basically separated from grease and other oils, much like it does when you pour oil into water in your kitchen, or in a school science experiment.
Primary clarification tanks
The third step is called "biological treatment." In this step, bacteria such as "Zoogloea" break down organic material by eating it. I should mention that up until this point, these are all steps that nature would have taken in its own course. The treatment facility just performs these steps on a much larger scale.
The fourth and final step is called "disinfection." In this step, disease causing organisms are removed from the water by treating it with chlorine. The chlorine is then cleaned from the water (so, the water is essentially cleaned five different times) and then returned to Lake Michigan. This water is not clean enough to drink, but is clean enough to be returned to the lake. The water that we drink is actually treated further by a different facility.
After going through the tour, the thing that surprised me the most was the conspicuous lack of technology in the process. It's actually incredibly simple, and except for the chlorine, doesn't do anything that nature wouldn't ordinarily do on its own terms. I had always pictured the process of water reclamation to be chemical-intensive and completely inorganic, but I was wrong. It is also simple enough that the plant itself only needs about six people on a daily basis to operate the entire thing. So, if you think about it, in the city of Milwaukee, there are only about six people that have anything to do with cleaning the water of millions of toilets. It's pretty impressive!
The next stop on the tour was the Milorganite plant. If water treatment was a foreign process to me prior to this tour, then Milorganite was rocket science. All I knew about Milorganite was that it was fertilizer made out of human excrement. (When I was younger this idea seemed incredibly silly to me. I was concerned that we would be putting the poop of people that we knew on our garden and such).
As we approached the building, I could smell that rancid, dreadful smell that tortured me last summer and made me want to puke as I worked. It got stronger and stronger as we walked into the building, went down an elevator, and finally entered the facility.
I have to admit, the next part of the process is a little bit lost on me. Between the smell, and the nauseating sight of chemically and organically broken down waste on a conveyor belt, I was a little bit distracted. But I did get some pictures to give you a better idea.
The adult in me knows that this is a rare glimpse of an obscure process that I was getting to see, but the kid in me couldn't help but make the comparison to ground beef, and ultimately, Taco Bell. I just couldn't help myself.
The last step in the process was down in the basement of the facilities, and was the final answer I needed to solve the mystery of the smelliest smell. In the basement was a row of huge dryers, very similar to a dryer we use to dry our clothes, in which the now highly manipulated waste is placed in to dry.
The door pictured above is a small trap door in the dryer that is used by workers to stick their hand in and test the moisture in the Milorganite. As the woman who gave us the tour pointed out, "Making Milorganite is not a science, it's an art." The dryers are not able to be fully operated by computers, because an actual human is needed to judge whether or not the product is dry enough to be removed from the machine. It's kind of like making pickles. There is no exact formula for making the right pickle with the right taste, and in fact, just like pickles, Milorganite is a fermented product that varies from batch to batch.
At the end of the tour, we were allowed to feel a bit of Milorganite in its raw state, before it is ground up further and ready to be sold. I was a little bit relieved that the tour was almost over, because of the thickness of the smell. By that point I felt slightly nauseous again, and wasn't really sure whether or not to breath out of my mouth or my nose. We were asked to please sanitise our hands, and then we were released outside.
After we were out in the sunshine and fresh air again, I was able to reflect upon the experience. Not only did I learn about the system used by the city of Milwaukee to clean our wastewater, but I learned the rich history of Milorganite. Little did I know that the name "Milorganite" actually comes from the name "Milwaukee." Milwaukee + Organic + Nitrogen = Milorganite. Cute, huh? Milwaukee has actually been making Milorganite since the 1920s, at which point we were one of the only cities in the United States that used this process. Now there are many other cities that produce Milorganite, but Milwaukee is still known as the city that pioneered the recycling of a waste product. It is also notable, as a friend pointed out to me later, that the sale of Milorganite almost entirely covers the cost of production, which makes it, in essence, a socialist process. My mind goes back to my younger self asking me if it would be okay to sell Milorganite in a for-profit system, simply because of the human aspect of it. Would people be up in arms about selling their own waste so a giant company could make money off of it? It somehow feels akin to selling a kidney on the black market.
When I eventually made it home, I had an ironic problem waiting for me: My toilet was clogged, and had been since that morning. I ran out and bought a plunger, and engaged in the relatively unpleasant process of plunging. When the clog finally cleared, I quickly racked my brains, thinking about the workers at the treatment facility, and asked myself if I have ever put anything down a toilet that probably shouldn't be there. The only thing I could think of was a dead goldfish, many years ago, but I didn't feel that guilty because I know that this a relatively common funeral for a goldfish. I thought maybe I should start flushing mints or other pleasantries such as candies down the toilet, to make the process of cleaning the water more pleasant. Of course this is a stupid idea that makes absolutely no difference to the process, but it was still funny to think about for a minute.
Ultimately I vowed that I will tell anyone I possibly can about this tour. Even for someone like me, who tries as hard as I can to live in balance with my environment, it was the experience of seeing the way that water has to be cleaned that made me really understand why we should keep it clean in the first place. It's all just one big cycle. Just think, if you see a guy eating Cheetos at the zoo, you may or may not end up putting a bag of Milorganite containing his excrement on your grass next spring. I'll repeat the warning of our tour guide: Don't flush pharmaceuticals. Maybe don't even take them in the first place. Don't eat weird, processed food. Dispose of your tampons properly.
For my own part, I will try and make peace with The Smell. Maybe it will make me gag and complain a little bit less now that I know exactly where it's coming from. I can also explain to others why that smell is a smell that makes Milwaukee unique. It's not gross…it's recycling.
Thank you Doors Open Milwaukee for an awesome, educational weekend!
And, if you're interested, check out this awesome coloring book my friend Jamie made for the weekend's events.