November 1, 2022

Sewer-That Infrastructure We Take For Granted, with Jessica Leigh Hester

It is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure but we never think of it working below the feet of the city.

While water works and other amenities necessary to sanitary city life have been built like monuments, there is not the same adulation or pleasure taken in the sewer, that vital piece of infrastructure that allows density of people without a seething bacterial mess of scent and disease.

In a series of “books about ordinary things” journalist and  historian Jessica Leigh Hester peels off the layers of discomfort of the sewer, and brings readers to a full understanding of the function, history, and future of sewers, and how climate change needs to be factored in to how sewers operate. In preparation for the book launch and tour this month, Ms. Hester has been making her own “fatberg” to show readers what it is, what it looks like, and how it blocks sewers.

Her book “Sewer” describes how and why sewers were developed, and how even today they are topical, with wastewater showing “what’s going on inside people’s bodies even before something is obviously awry”.

Her well researched book has copious generous footnotes, describing other areas that can be delved into.  While describing the history of sewers, Ms. Hester also delves into the future of what we put into them which does not leave. She has chapters describing the impact of fats, wet wipes and plastics “that slough off …and tumble into the water will endure on shores or in sediments for generations”.

It was the big flush from the introduction of toilets in the the first part of the 1800’s  in Paris and the showcasing of toilets in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 that really started the sewer conundrum.

Sewers were not designed to take large amounts of gushing water, and many sewers went straight into local rivers and streams.  That started to change with facilities like London’s  Crossness Pumping Facility built in 1865  covered 6.5 acres and was designed to pump sewage from South London “into an enormous reservoir that could hold 25 million gallons”.

And in Paris Georges-Eugene Haussmann who rebuilt 19th century Paris “described the pipes as the vital organs of the great city” which were eventually open for tours. Paris had an enviable collection of public toilets across the city. When a public toilet was introduced at the 1851  London Great Exhibition it attracted a lot of interest and was “reportedly visited more than 827,800 times”.

But something has happened about the regard of sewers and waste facilities as the Cathedrals of Sewage. Perhaps because of human prudeness, or  how we don’t value public  washrooms or  the load of water and waste humans dispose of,  sewer infrastructure is never really discussed, understood or planned for.

And that is where wet wipes, a 20th and 21st century phenomenon comes in. One British utility says that 80 percent of their 40,000 blockages a year are due to people flushing down these products which cause “subterranean chaos”.

Ms. Hester recreates how these wet wipes came into being, and how they have been coded as a replacement for the bidet, as a makeup remover, and as something absolutely necessary during the Covid Pandemic. And while in many places sewage is treated in plants around the world, these wipes still are discharged into river courses where locals do clean ups specifically to remove them. Along the British Thames River there is a “Great Wet Wipe Reef” and a “Frankenstein foreshore”, an artificial piling of wipes changing the formation of the shoreline.

In 2021 to counter the “flushable” wipe theory the US Congress is considering a bill to slap a “Do Not Flush” label on these products.

And that brings the conversation to “Fatbergs”. These are “foul clumps” that can reach “titanic heft” and one that weighed 11 tons clogging up the sewers. These masses contain different types of fat, dairy products, and soapy liquids with of course the wet wipes. They are not chemically identical, but they all serve the purpose of clogging the sewer system.  Ms. Hester travels with British sewer crews to see how these fatbergs are dispersed (firstly by water jets or a hose or a vacuum).

As Ms. Hester describes “Fatbergs are a rebuke-a signal that our habits have consequences…there is not much distance between the often-hidden infrastructural world and the more obvious one we engage with each day”.

In terms of the future, density and our habits to live in cities have great impacts on sewers, especially with climate change. Today more than 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is released untreated, and some (like the City of Vancouver’s) still have combined sewer and sanitary sewers that dump directly into water bodies in a huge rain event. Vancouver was to have a completely separated storm and sanitary sewer system in this decade; but over the past 40 years that has been delayed at times of budget response. Out of sight, out of mind. But those sewage releases also include microplastics, which in Florida were killing coral by smothering them.

This book contains stories about Ms. Hester’s visits in sewers, to waste fat collectors, to lakes and rivers and oceans, and into the depth of sewage facilities. She also describes success stories for sewage, like South Bend Indiana that used automated gates to control stormwater release from combined sewers. Under past  Mayor Pete Buttigieg the city slashed overflows by one billion gallons a year.

Ms. Hester argues that citizens should know about their wastewater plants, and be able to visit them and use them as recreation and placemaking opportunities. But she also puts forward that as cities react to more climate change events and more density, that the sewer capacity developed for municipalities in the last few decades will not be able to keep up. And that has changed the author’s habits, who thinks about how to avoid putting fats in the drain or putting her fleece jacket in the wash (which causes microplastics to flow in the water).

This is an easy to read, approachable book, written in a captivating style. It follows Ms. Hester’s journey of learning about sewers, how they are managed, what impacts them, and what the ramifications are for waterways with our growing populations and climate change events.  I highly recommend this book, which will open up more questions and thoughts about sewer infrastructure, impacts future use and design.

As Ms. Hester summarizes “I keep thinking about what sewers reveal about the way people treat the planet, and how we might be gentler…Maybe it’s apt to think of our cumulative habits as water rushing through a pipe-ever mingling, never alone“.

The book is available through Bloomsbury Publishing starting on November 3 and can be purchased as an e-book or paperback. You can put in your order here.










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