Category Archives: Big Ideas

The Trouble with Food Scraps

The recent publication of GMWEA’s first “Don’t Flush It!” brochure sparked a lively discussion about food scraps among wastewater and solid waste management professionals.  Should be they be flushed or processed in in-sink disposal units — and thus allowed into septic tanks or municipal wastewater systems?

The brochure, “Cloggers!”, identifies materials that typical households flush or pour into their septic/sewer systems – fats, oils, and greases, along with solid items – that clog tanks, pumps, and pipes.

Food scraps proved to be the most nuanced of these materials, due to two, contradictory, characteristics:

1. They are valuable!  They contain sequestered nutritional value, energy, and money, and their value can still be recovered even after the scraps leave your kitchen. (The average American household throws away about $1,600 worth of food every year!) 

2. They are problematic!  Stored improperly, they can grow pathogens, stink, attract  pests, and generate greenhouse gases; flushed, they contribute to clogs in private septic systems and  municipal wastewater plants.

The issue is especially urgent in that Act 148, Vermont’s Universal Recycling & Composting Law, bans the disposal of food in landfills as of July 1, 2020.

What are we to think? Chittenden Solid Waste recently offered this view:

“. . . Don’t look at your garbage disposal for answers—Just ask the folks who manage wastewater treatment plants and witness the repercussions of putting the wrong things down the drain.

“’Organic overload is a concern in septic tanks as well as in wastewater treatment systems,’ says Jim Jutras, Water Quality Superintendent at the Water Resource Recovery Facility in Essex, Vt. ‘Another concern is “hydraulic overload,” where home septic systems and municipal systems . . . accumulate material that can cause trouble, such as “flushable” wipes, grease, and food scraps. This can result in costly repairs or sewage overflows.’

“Some residences don’t have their own system, but do connect directly to a municipal wastewater treatment plant, via pump stations, which require regular maintenance due to the increase in food scraps and ‘flushables’ that can hang up in the pump and cause backups and sewer overflows.

“. . . The bottom line: Drains and garbage disposals are not the solution for handling your food scraps. Public and private water systems, especially older ones, are not designed to handle much more than human waste from your toilet, rinse water from the kitchen sink, or bath/shower water. Even items marketed as ‘flushable’ can cause problems.”

However, Jeff Wennberg, Commissioner of Public Works in Rutland, offers this cautionary “minority report”:

“One-half of the dwelling units in Rutland City are rental units. The vast majority are multi-family homes and most of those do not have the homeowner residing in the home. In nearly all of these cases there is no yard to speak of (Rutland is only 7 square miles and 85% developed). The idea that absentee landlords are going to persuade renters to use composters in the apartment or on-site is totally unrealistic. Compliance with mandatory on-site composting will be 20% to 25% City-wide at best.”

Wennberg’s concern for compliance rates – and for petroleum used in transporting food waste to centralized composting or biodigestion facilities – is validated by past Vermont experiences in Zero Waste and post-consumer food-waste value optimization. 

What’s a householder to do?Fortunately, there are ways to avoid flushing food waste and to soften the edges of our hard choices. Again, thanks are due to CSWD for articulating some alternatives.

1. Store food better – buy smart and fine-tune your fridge

2. Donate food – plan your consumption, give excess to Vermont’s many hunger-fighting programs

3. Feed animals – get to know your local chicken and pig farmers

4. Digest it – compost it yourself, or find a neighbor who does

5. Recover energy – not yet an option in Vermont, but rather a systemic goal to strive for.

CSWD offers more excellent advice at  www.cswd.net/reduce-and-reuse/reducing-food-waste/

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

What’s the Big Idea? (3)

This is the third post in my “What’s the Big Idea?” series — this time, more of a photo essay or info-graphic. There is method to the madness here – I’m working around to the seven Big Ideas developed by the U.S. Water Alliance as part of their One Water policy framework.

But the sheer scale of water and wastewater management is SO huge, and issues of physical scale are SO important to water use and policy (and cost!), I figure readers can use another bigness to grapple with: How much is a million gallons? That number comes to mind because here in Montpelier, Vermont — a town of about 8,000 hardy souls — we use an average of one million gallons of treated water every day.

“A million gallons” is easy to say, but how much is it, really?  Sometimes I think even the drinking water and wastewater people I work with don’t really get it.

Well, everyone knows how big a gallon of milk (or water) is.  Here’s an illustration of one gallon, in the usual plastic jug, with a young man about six feet tall.

Below, here he is again, having just stacked 1,000 of those jugs. I have made every effort to keep the scale accurate — though I admit those jugs put some air between the gallons.

Below, here he is again, with 100,000 such gallon jugs.

And, at last, with one million gallons.

Here in Montpelier, we use that much, on average, every day.  Makes you think about, say, New York City’s one billion gallons per day – one thousand times more.  If you stacked that amount in one-gallon plastic milk jugs, as I’ve done here, it would look about like midtown Manhattan – many dense blocks of skyscrapers.

A whole city-scape poured, drunk, washed with, flushed, and drained — and replaced — every day. Oh — and it all then goes to a wastewater treatment facility to be cleaned up afterward.

The scale of our water use and pollution is mind-boggling, and the science, engineering, technology, infrastructure, and professional community that manages it deserve our awe and admiration.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here.

What’s the Big Idea? (2)

In the prior “Big Idea” post, I started with the idea that the traditional view of the water cycle is no longer accurate.  To the classic four phases – precipitation, flow, evaporation, and condensation – we need to add a fifth.  That’s mankind’s use and pollution of the 1% of the world’s water that’s available in fresh, liquid form.

The sheer scale of our water use is mind-boggling.  In the U.S. alone, our household use totals 32 billion gallons per day.  And that’s only about one-eighth of the total volume we use; much more is used in thermoelectric power plants, manufacturing, irrigation, and mining. 

Point to consider: It all has to get cleaned up before we use it — and again after we use it.

More big numbers: Here in the U.S., we use 1.2 million miles of pipe to bring us clean water.  How far is that?  It’s as if we pumped our 32 billion gallons a day to the moon, then back, then back up to the moon and back to Earth again, and yet again up to the moon.  (You can also think of it as 26 miles of water pipe for every mile of Interstate highway we have.)

For wastewater, we in the U.S. use 750,000 miles of public sewer lines and 500,000 miles of additional lines connecting private property to public sewer lines.  Picture the same illustration, except that it’s sewage moving through the pipe.

The moon doesn’t want our sewage, any more than our rivers do.  So, we clean that water up in the 14,748 publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities that process what comes through those pipes.  As my uncle used to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Or maybe not.”

Next: More mind-boggling examples of water/wastewater infrastructure scale. Oh, and big money.

Source for data: American Society of Civil Engineers; Bipartisan Policy Center.

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

What’s the Big Idea? (1)

This is the first of a series of posts about big numbers, big systems, and big ideas.

Most water quality professionals don’t have time to worry much about the big picture.  People like facility operators, town managers, and DPW administrators are kept plenty busy treating their allotted gallons per day, fixing busted equipment, eliminating contaminants, completing reports, or searching municipal budgets to find money for maintenance.

But big ideas are crucial.  They provide inspiring visions — or warnings — that can move us to make good choices for the future.  No matter how well disciplined a ship’s crew, or how well maintained its mechanical systems, the first thing a ship needs when it leaves port is a destination.  

When it comes to how we manage water, we need to have the guidance of a larger vision.  We need to have an idea of where we ought to go.

First, we should remember that only about 1% of the world’s water is readily usable for us. That is, it exists as fresh (not salty), liquid (not frozen) water. Then factor in our ever-growing demand for it and our increasing pollution of it.  Obviously, we need a long-term vision for our management of this life-sustaining resource.

Next, we need to update our traditional vision of the “water cycle.”  In grade school, most of us learned a tidy four-part sequence: 1) water falls from the sky as rain or snow; 2) flows into rivers and lakes and oceans; 3) evaporates back into the sky; 4) condenses into clouds and falls again as precipitation.


Where are the homes, office towers, factories, power plants, and farm fields in this old-fashioned schematic?

But now we know there’s another phase in the cycle.  Humanity’s use and pollution of water requires that it go through extensive cleansing processes before it can return to the ground or surface waters, and before we can safely use it again. 

To understand why that’s so, we need a realistic sense of scale – how much water we use. 

Talk about “big!”  In the U.S., our  daily domestic use averages about 95 gallons per day, per person (variable by region).  When we flush, brush, shower, do the laundry, and water the lawn, we use about 32,000,000,000 gallons per day. Where does it all go?

32 billion gallons.  Per day.  Domestic use only. Just in the U.S.

Now consider that domestic use constitutes only about 13%, one-eighth, of the total amount of fresh water we use daily.  We use the other 87% in thermoelectric plants, irrigation, manufacturing, mining, and other functions. 

Not a drop of that water leaves our sinks, toilets, lawns, fields, pipes, or factories unpolluted.  That’s why 53% of America’s river and stream miles, 71% of our lake acres, 79% of our estuarian square miles, and 98% of Great Lakes shorelines are classified as “impaired” by at least one criterion in a 2018 U.S. EPA survey.

If you’re not daunted yet, be sure to read the next post on the bigness of our water infrastructure and the bigness of cost needed to make it work.  Then, on to some inspiring, solution-oriented Big Ideas offered by the U.S. Water Alliance!

Source for data and charts: U.S. EPA: https://www.epa.gov/watersense/how-we-use-water

To return to GMWEA’s website, go to www.gmwea.org.