Biosolids on the conveyor at Brightwater

Biosolids on the conveyor at Brightwater

When was the last time you flushed a toilet and wondered where the contents went? We don’t give much thought to the massive network of pipes beneath our cities unless something goes wrong: a sink gets clogged, water seeps from a crack in the asphalt or a fire hydrant sprays out of control to the delight of children in the summer.

For that matter, when was the last time you considered your human plumbing? How many times have you played Russian roulette with wine or spicy food at dinner wondering if it would come bubbling up around midnight? How often do you eat or drink without pausing to respect the complex digestion process happening inside? Even when expelling waste –the one time that we’re faced with irrefutable evidence of this process– we distract ourselves with newspapers and magazines, or more frequently these days, a cell phone. (Ew.)

Even more difficult to fund than mass transit, it’s hard to prioritize infrastructure like sewer systems or wastewater treatment plants (or our digestive tracts) until they send us to a professional for help. Unless there’s a problem, the corroded pipes look like the brand new ones from the street level: invisible. Who wants to spend money on things we can’t see? Mayors cross their fingers that city infrastructure will hold until they’re out of office. All it takes is delayed repair or untimely disfunction –we don’t have clean tap water to drink or shower with, or to flush a toilet– for these systems to become extremely important and obvious. Like the time I ate bad salmon crudo in Venice, it isn’t until disaster strikes that we appreciate everything that our plumbing does for us when it’s working right.

After spending our Leadership Tomorrow Environment Challenge Day at Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant, where we were reminded many times of how massive our hidden infrastructure is, I stepped back to consider things from a systems perspective. We talk a lot in LT about bridging silos and boundaries in order to understand the challenges that our region faces, but ultimately it comes back to understanding infrastructure of all kinds — what frameworks exist, how parts are connected, how each of us contributes to the overall system and how we as a community are responsible for maintaining, upgrading and replacing our networks over time.

As my recent posts suggest, I’ve also been thinking about infrastructure in the sense of friendships and what it takes to support one’s network so that it can be relied upon for support when needed. It so happens that my friend, Sean, had a big hand in bringing Brightwater to life, truly a major effort of his architectural career. Throughout the campus, I felt a sense of pride in his work and, if it’s possible, a fuzzy, warm feeling about the place, which I marketed for years while Sean and I were co-workers. While the function and the mission of Brightwater came about in no small part from King County’s vision and key staff like project manager Michael Popiwny, it also exemplifies principles that Sean models in his own life: sustainable leadership, resource conservation and an appreciation for beauty, art and science.

With that last note on science and technology, it is impossible to ignore the purpose of Brightwater. No pulling out a newspaper or a magazine to distract ourselves here, folks — this is a place to filter, process, package and release SHIT as well as treated water. It doesn’t get more elemental than this. Naturally, the most popular sight (and smell) on the tour was the biosolids room. Inside, machines add a thickener to the reclaimed poop as it scoots down the belt in an oversized version of Lucille Ball’s candy conveyor, which made all of us think twice about how those solids got there in the first place. We tittered like school children when our guide said that they actually were hoping for more volume, encouraging us to do our part.

After the solids are thickened, they undergo a process that ultimately yields a dried fertilizer called Loop that is sold to farmers to enrich the fields of Eastern Washington. We learned that most treatment plants actually pay to bury their waste in landfills rather than reusing what is a nourishing medium for agriculture; Brightwater is one of few plants nationwide that puts its end products to use. Similarly, the treated water, which passes through a micro membrane filtration system at the final state of treatment, comes out colorless and clean, ready for use. Brightwater is hoping to secure a contract with Willows Run Golf Course to use the treated water, which will lessen the golf course’s demand on a nearby watershed, thus increasing the health of salmon and related habitat. Still, more can be done with the treated water they produce, as proven by the thriving demonstration garden powered by nutrient-enriched liquor. All they need is more subscribers.

When someone asked if I showered immediately upon arriving home, having stood in a room filled with other people’s waste, my first thought was (ironically), Aw, crap… Still, it wasn’t the first time I’ve been surrounded in that manner. After all, what about the ever-present emotional shit that we wade through, if in less obvious ways — feelings that emanate from ourselves and others, which we can’t see but know run deep — the by-products of daily life? These, too, can be transformed into a fertile growing medium for new thoughts and actions, if we choose to process rather than bury them. Like Loop, this takes investment and work.

Emotional shit and real shit, these are difficult things to daylight. As animals, we keep our constitutional activities and our deep emotions private, particularly when things aren’t going well. How many times are you asked the same empty question in a day (“How are you?”) that you respond to in an equally empty way (“Fine, and you?”) This is why friendships are so important, perhaps even more important than familial relationships in some ways. For most of us, there is a very short list of people with whom we disclose our emotional shit, and they don’t necessary share a gene pool with us. That said, if our personal infrastructure isn’t ready to handle the load, the processing of emotional by-products can bring these delicate systems down.

A few months ago, not aware that I was testing the limits of a new friendship, I let fly some unfiltered angst at dinner one evening that overloaded the capacity. (Red wine makes us all emotionally slutty, doesn’t it?) At that point, I was knee-deep, having spent most of the fall sifting through the solids of mid-life transition, much to the patience of those closest to me. Still, it was only upon bidding farewell to Kim and Angela that I realized how much processing my close friends and I have done over the last decade. That’s the benefit of maintaining systems once they’re established: the lines of deep friendships bring a grander capacity than most.

In my enthusiasm for new people, I forget that not all friendships are built this way, nor do they mature at the pace they did when we were young. Balancing pragmatism and caution, it feels like we’re dating when we make new adult friendships; we try not to scare off the other party, restraining the flow of personal information or emotion at first, lest we infringe upon others with our vulnerability or desire for commitment. No one likes a deluge at the start of a journey.

This is my way of thanking those who have become part of my infrastructure, and allowed me to become part of theirs. Though the stream lessens at times, it’s not like the shit we go through as humans will ever stop completely. That said, I’m glad that it has a place to go, that we can mine the interesting parts together and transform them into something useful. Neatly repackaged, these end-products infuse life with richness that it didn’t possess before. Sometimes, the shit actually ends up making life worth living, especially when it brings us closer together.

In life, the results of all this processing are resilience, wisdom and fodder for inside jokes. At Brightwater, they are nitrogen and phosphorus-rich water and soil amendments. As they leave the site, the ventilated air, filtered water and fresh fertilizer are blessed by a series of artworks. As the water leaves the site, it passes over a set of steps that read, No beginning, no end, circle the earth, blessed water, blood of life.


Water is blessed before it leaves the site

Water is blessed before it leaves the site

– –
PS If you haven’t been to Brightwater, please make a point of going. Not only should you as a contributor and consumer know what happens to your own waste, it’s downright fascinating. If you feel the need to explain your visit in non-excremental terms, you can say that you’re interested in the public art located throughout campus, however, I promise that you will come for the poop and stay for the poop.