What Really Happens After You Flush the Toilet

Your waste goes on a magical journey from becoming "mixed liquor" to "sludge cakes," as this photographic tour of Arlington County, Virginia's newly renovated wastewater plant reveals.

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John Metcalfe

People – I have been to the smelly mountaintop that is Arlington County, Virginia's Water Pollution Control Plant, and I come back bearing this message: Stop flushing your tampons, Kleenex and condoms down the toilet, dammit!

While doing so might seem like a quick way of getting rid of incriminating evidence, flushing does not, in fact, disappear this stuff from the face of the planet. Rather, it courses down through yawning sewer pipes to your city's wastewater treatment plant, where all the public-works employees get to stare hard at it while machines lift it away for incineration. That's if it doesn't clump up and clog the system, causing a massive sewage overflow in some hapless business far away, as was the case recently at an Arlington Harris Teeter. (The culprit: non-biodegradable "rags and debris.")

Frank Corsoro is one of the guys who sees all the dirty little secrets you think you've safely flushed away. As an operations specialist at the pollution control plant, he's responsible for helping neutralize an average of 30 million gallons of sanitary-sewer water per day. He is, in the words of his boss and pollution-control bureau chief Larry Slattery, "sort of the magic silver lever, you pull it and everything goes away."

A breviloquent native of New York, Corsoro speaks authoritatively about the ascending ladder of odors wafting around the plant ("pristine," "musty," "putrid," "unbearable") and waxes poetic about the chocolate hue of what waste-management pros call "mixed liquor," a microbe-stuffed fecal milkshake you definitely don't want to do a shot of. He sometimes gives tours of the plant to his church group, although he draws the line at 9-year-olds for fear their little bodies might stumble and slip into the bubbling waste.

In a coup of journalistic planning, last Friday I asked Corsoro to guide me around the plant on the year's hottest day yet in Washington, D.C. The stink, in the 104-degree heat, was remarkably not so abysmal. At worst it resembled the foul bouquet of a heap of feces from every animal in the zoo, but on average it smelled like the ocean on a poor-water-quality day or the C&O Canal on any day. We didn't gag even once.

The relative lack of fetor is due to Arlington's recent efforts to rehabilitate the 1935 facility to come in line with tightened state and federal regulations. The county has put $568 million into upgrading the plant, making it Arlington's priciest public-works project to date. So what does a top-of-the-line wastewater-treatment facility look like in America? Click on the gallery to begin your tour, keeping in mind that this diary of doody is best enjoyed while sitting on the toilet.

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