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Where does Boston’s wastewater go?

This June, the Office of Sustainability organized a field trip to the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Current and future Eco-Ambassadors spent a cloudy Friday morning touring the plant and learning about the life cycle of their wastewater, from the drain to Boston Harbor. The field trip encouraged mindfulness about water consumption and showed how wastewater treatment is engineered to maximize efficiency, providing wastewater management for decades to come.

In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed the Clean Water Act. The act, among other things, required cities to process wastewater with both primary and secondary treatment. In 1987, Massachusetts created the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) with the goal of updating Boston’s wastewater treatment to comply with the new EPA standards. In 2000, after a decade of planning and construction, the current Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant was completed.

Deer Island services 2.5 million people in the Metropolitan Boston area and processes an average of 370 million gallons of wastewater daily. How does wastewater “influent” make it to Deer Island? Gravity drives influent through conveyance tunnels underneath the city.  Massive pumps lift the influent 80 to 150 feet up into the plant. Deer Island has a wastewater capacity of 1.3 billion gallons per day, and on rainy days more pumps are brought online to accommodate increased influent. 

Process Control Project Manager Timothy Beaulieu explains primary treatment to the group

After arriving at Deer Island, influent undergoes primary treatment. Grit is removed and disposed of at landfills, then clarifiers remove pollutants. At this stage, about 60% of suspended solids and 50% of pathogens and toxic chemicals are removed. Gravity separates sludge and scum from the wastewater – scum sits on top of the water while sludge sinks to the bottom.

Once primary treatment is complete, wastewater continues to secondary treatment. Mixers, reactors, and clarifiers remove remaining solids through biological and gravitational processes. Deer Island manufactures oxygen to feed microorganisms which consume dissolved organic matter. After secondary treatment, 85% of pollution has been removed from the wastewater.

Effluent is disinfected and then dechlorinated before diffusing into Massachusetts Bay

The final step before wastewater “effluent” is discharged is disinfection. Effluent is treated with sodium hypochlorite to kill any remaining pathogens, then sodium bisulfite is added to dechlorinate the water. Effluent is released into the Massachusetts Bay through over 50 individual diffuser pipes, ensuring rapid and thorough mixing with ocean water. The effluent is monitored for appropriate chemical and oxygen levels to protect the local ecosystem.

Egg-shaped digestors use bacteria to break down sludge and scum to produce fertilizer

But what happens to the sludge and scum leftover from primary treatment? The solids are first thickened in centrifuges, then added to egg-shaped anaerobic digestors. The digestors are huge, 90 feet wide and 130 feet tall, and carefully maintain a pH and temperature that mimic the human body. Bacteria already present in the waste break down the sludge and scum into methane gas, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. The methane is captured and converted into 95% of Deer Island heating needs and 20% of electricity needs.

Digestion reduces sludge and scum quantities by 55%, and the remaining solids are pumped to the MWRA pelletizing facility in Quincy. The resulting organic nitrogen fertilizer, meeting strict EPA and MA Department of Environmental Protection requirements, is used in agriculture and forestry. Additionally, air from Deer Island is scrubbed of sulfur using filters and activated carbon to prevent sulfur dioxide emissions.

After visiting Deer Island, it’s clear that the plant is designed to operate in the most sustainable way possible. Every output – water, air, gas, solids – is either cleaned to meet environmental standards or repurposed as energy or fertilizer. Residents can rest assured that their wastewater is properly treated thanks to the care and effort of Deer Island planners, engineers, and operators. 

Striving for Zero Waste at the 2019 President’s Picnics

Many of our celebrated BYOP-ers are pictured above! Read the blog post below to learn what all of them are smiling about

This year’s President’s Picnics took the various Tufts campuses practically by storm, one happening right after the other at the end of May. A few weeks ahead of previous years, President Monaco kicked off the picnic season on the Medford/Somerville campus. It was a bright early summer day that drew staff and faculty out of their offices, labs, and studios, not to mention a few students that were still around as well. A shuttle was provided for people coming from the SMFA campus, with over 1,700 attendees counted in all.

Keeping in line with the zero waste efforts of years past, the Office of Sustainability coordinated with catering services to see that all of the disposable, single-use tableware provided at the picnic was compostable, including the plates, utensils, and cups (plus napkins too, of course). This also meant going over the menu in detail, recommending cookies over, say, a whipped dessert that might come in a plastic cup which could be too hard to clean of leftover food and ultimately have to be trashed. Condiments for the delicious main fare of burgers/veggie burgers were set out in bulk, to avoid any single serving packets and reduce the overall amount of food packaging. Out under the shade of the trees on the President’s lawn, several compost-only waste stations were set up and staffed by students to help people compost all their unfinished food along with the biodegradable tableware– meaning nothing should have been sent to the landfill on the attendees’ part. An Office of Sustainability intern who is well-versed in recycling and compost rules worked near where catering was set up, sorting the waste generated by food preparation and clean-up into the appropriate waste streams, greatly reducing what otherwise had the potential to be sent to the landfill.

Student worker standing next to Medford/Somerville picnic waste station

For those ready to take their sustainability to the next level, the Office of Sustainability offered a limited number of prizes to attendees that participated in the picnics’ BYOP initiative– Bring Your Own [Reusable] Place-setting. By visiting our table with a complete place-setting of their own– a plate/bowl, a utensil(s), and something to drink out of– each picnic attendee was eligible to take home this year’s prize: a bamboo straw with a cleaner and a carrying pouch to easily tote the set around with you. The bamboo for the straws was sustainably sourced in Indonesia and each one was laser engraved with the university-wide ‘Tufts – sustainability’ text lock-up. We ran out of straws at each picnic, with the Boston Health Sciences campus being the most enthusiastic and emptying our supply in less than half an hour that day.

Even if a picnic attendee didn’t have a complete place-setting, they were still awarded a President’s Picnic sticker printed by the Office of Sustainability and given the chance to enter our raffle drawing for this year’s grand prize of a set of three reusable produce bags. One prize was drawn on each campus, with 132 entries for Medford/Somerville, 96 at Boston Health Sciences, and 74 in Grafton. After moving the Grafton picnic to it’s rain date as a result of temperamental weather and still getting a rather brisk May picnic day, we were especially impressed with the attendees at that campus that kept their BYOP numbers on par with previous years.

A big thank you to everyone who brought a reusable of any type to one of the President’s Picnics this year. To all who earned a straw, we hope that they get put to good use representing the ever-growing culture of sustainability at Tufts, and inspire co-workers, students, and community members around you to carry their own reusable items with them to reduce the waste of single use products. We look forward to greeting everyone at next year’s picnics– and don’t forget to tell your friends to BYOP too!

Third Carbon Neutrality Community Workshop

By Michael Wilkinson, Office of Sustainability Intern

The Third Carbon Neutrality Community Workshop provided students, faculty, staff, and community members an opportunity to try their hand at creating a path to carbon neutrality at Tufts through a carbon reduction simulation. In this simulation, the carbon neutrality planning team and Tufts’ carbon neutrality consultant, Ramboll Group, provided information on potential scenarios to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Teams broke off into groups to see if they could arrive at full carbon reduction by 2050 within the temporal, social, environmental, and economic constraints of our University. Through critical thinking and teamwork, the groups were able to assemble a cohesive and functioning group of projects that both satisfied our carbon neutrality requirement while remaining conscientious of our constraints. Following this simulation, groups were given an opportunity to explain their choices.

Dan Kelley from Ramboll Group then provided relevant information to explain potential projects for the Medford/Somerville Campus. Throughout this presentation, event participants asked pertinent questions relating to each project and their larger implications for campus life. To conclude their presentation, Ramboll Group provided the current project choices, which include steam to hot water conversion, connection of the Upper and Lower Campus heating loops, a conversion of existing boilers to biofuel, and several more.  

This event allowed participants to learn and engage with the carbon neutrality planning process. Chockfull with complex technologies, on-campus interests, varied stakeholders, and peculiarities, this project requires the attention of our entire community.

Recycling in Tufts Apartment Style Dorms

Do you know how to properly recycle in Tufts residences such as Latin Way, Hillsides, SoGo, and Coho?

Test yourself:

Which of these can you recycle?

  • clear plastic cups
  • colored plastic cups
  • paper plastic cups

Can you dispose of your recycling in a plastic bag?

Where is the recycling dumpster for your dorm?

To learn more about recycling visit!

UEP Tupperware Initiative

I asked Mike Flanary, a staff assistant at the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Eco-Ambassador, about UEP’s Tupperware initiative. He described a system that reduces waste – both food and dishware – as long as students remember to bring them. Below, read more details about the program. 

The Urban and Environmental Policy department hosts an event series each semester called the UEP Colloquium. The events, usually presented by alums of the program, focus on urban and environmental issues. Since they take place during Wednesday open block (12-1pm), the department provides lunch. 

Mike Flanary says that with extra department funds, the department Chair, Mary Davis, wanted buy swag for students. “It’s pretty crazy the amount of objects that you can put a logo on these days and most of them aren’t very practical or usable and are rather cheap quality… Our students and faculty use the kitchen in our building for storing their lunch in the fridge and microwaving food, so when I was looking at possible swag items, this instantly came to mind.” Tupperware would be practical, especially for bringing home food from the colloquium. Otherwise, leftovers are thrown out, whether on the day of the event or later, when the fridge gets cleaned out. 

Flanary described a lesson from his Eco-Ambassador training that stuck with him: Companies try to “go green” but often just to make it look or feel good, without making a dent in waste production. For example, recyclable or compostable products are more expensive and still are only used once. If they are not disposed of properly, they will end up in the waste strem along with the food that remains uneaten at the event. He quoted a proverb, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

The response to this initiative has been positive. Many students also bring reusable water bottles, coffee tumblers, and mason jars. Flanary says that food waste has decreased. “It’s allowed students to grab some extra food for later that would probably have been thrown out. We don’t send out an RSVP for the event so we try to get enough food while not having too much leftover. Since getting the containers, we have tried to have food that fits in the containers and that people would want to have later.”

For the future, or for other departments to adopt? “Remind students to pack up their containers the day before or even better to just have it their backpack.” The production of the plastic containers will only be offset if students use the containers frequently. “My hope is that students continue to bring them to future events, but it might be like the reusable bags issue, they’re great but it only works if people actually bring them into the store, or to the events in this case. Perhaps entice people with an incentive for bringing it with them.” Other departments who would like to start a similar initiative could think about what disposables get used up often. What costs a lot when ordering through WB Mason? How could an alternative work? Do you think it would be used? Would it be convenient? 

More information about past UEP events is available:

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