Improving New York City’s Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure

New York City’s fourteen wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) treat 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater every day. They treat sewage water to remove pollutants and solid debris, then release the sanitized water into local waterways, which can be used to irrigate crops and sustain aquatic life. However, a small number of pollutants may remain in the water. That’s why better wastewater treatment is necessary to protect the health of our waterways.

New Yorkers can promote clean waterways and protect WWTPs by conserving wastewater and properly disposing of garbage and household chemicals. However, investing in the long term sustainability and resiliency of these plants is also critical.

Our NYC Program Director, Adriana Espinoza, testified at a City Council Committee on Environmental Protection oversight hearing on WWTPs and discussed how the City can improve these plants.

First, more can be done to increase the lifespan and efficiency of these WWTPs. The City’s wastewater treatment infrastructure faces capital, technical, and regulatory challenges due to its aging facilities and equipment. The EPA has been working to get the funding, tools, and resources needed to modernize outdated infrastructure, and as a leader in environmental innovation, New York City must follow suit.

Upgrading the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) existing digesters, which are used to treat wastewater solids in WWTPs, to be more efficient will help lengthen the lifespan of these plants. More efficient digesters also mean less harmful methane emissions, which is 30 times more potent than other greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

These digesters are currently an untapped resource, as they produce biogas through the process of treating wastewater solids. This biogas energy from the digesters is a renewable energy source that can be used to power the WWTP or can offset the electrical grid. Therefore, making the digesters more efficient will not only improve local water quality, but it will also reduce air pollution and protect public health.

Second, the City should expand the practice of organic waste co-digestion at WWTPs, as suggested in our Food and Farms Agenda. This would bring a dual benefit of helping the City meet its goal of Zero Waste in landfills by 2030 (0x30) and address its organic waste issues. Co-digestion means that digesters at WWTPs would not only treat biosolids but would also manage high-quality organic waste like food scraps. Right now, only one WWTP in the City, Newtown Creek WWTP, is authorized and equipped to manage organic waste. This upgrade could also save the City money, as energy is generated from organic waste and used to power the WWTPs. In order to make this process more efficient, a partnership between DEP and the Department of Sanitation could arrange for more WWTP digesters to manage high-quality organic waste. Expanding organic waste processing at the City’s WWTPs creates more demand for food scraps, which should allow the Department of Sanitation to expand it’s organic waste programs.

In order to accomplish these goals, the City must invest in modernizing and upgrading the WWTPs.

NYLCV will continue to advocate for improved wastewater infrastructure and methods of reducing organic waste.