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The Poop Scoop

What happens after you flush

You flush your toilet an average of five times per day, but have you ever wondered what happens once it leaves the porcelain throne? By the time it reaches the end of the sewer line and completes a lengthy purifying process, not only is your wastewater cleaner than it started, but one more thing is clear. The wastewater facility workers who sort through the thick of it, surface with this message: If you think you can dispose of your strangest unmentionables down the drain, you’re wrong.

“There are no secrets. If you flush it down the toilet, we see it,” said Guy Joao, an operator at the Kaunakakai Wastewater Reclamation Facility.

The facility, less than one mile west of town, serves roughly 2,200 residents in Kaunakakai and Manila Camp, collecting your unwanted and unmentionables from the toilet, shower, washing machine and kitchen sink.

Of six other privately owned waste water reclamation facilities on Molokai, the Kaunakakai plant is only Molokai facility operated by the County of Maui, said Steve Parabacoli, County of Maui wastewater operations program superintendent.

Though the facility processes about 220,000 gallons of wastewater each day, plant workers say the community may not be fully aware of what happens to their waste.

“People just assume wastewater is doo-doo water,” said Joao. “Out of sight, out of mind–as long as everything works, they just don’t think about it.”

When John Souza, supervisor at the wastewater facility, began his career in the reclamation industry, he said even he wasn’t familiar with the process.

“All I knew at the time was that wastewater comes here,” said Souza. “I was ignorant so I thought ‘oh it’s like a big cesspool or something’ and I think the public has that same attitude.”

Down the Sewer Line
Arleone Dibben-Young is a local biologist who originally took interest in the waste water facility because it provides a rich ecosystem for native birds. Now, in her free time, she volunteers to give tours of the facility to local students and community members.

When you flush the toilet, the waste flows through an underground eight-inch pipe through Kaunakakai until it reaches a pump station, according to Dibben-Young. For some residents, their sink drains and washing machines also follow the same route.

At the pump station, large objects such as plastic bags, sticks, and rocks are strained from the wastewater to prevent clogging once it moves to the facility. This has also included such strange items as blue jeans and panty hose, according to Souza.

Once your waste reaches the Kaunakakai wastewater treatment facility, it moves through a diverse range of processes that separates solid waste and disinfects the water, said Dibben-Young.

First, the water flows through a screening conveyor belt that catches smaller solid objects in a trash bin that you may have lost or gotten rid of. One bin of waste measures one-half cubic yard, or 100 gallons, which facility staff takes to the landfill every two weeks, totaling more than 5,000 gallons of waste items annually.

“Just from looking in here, I see lots of cigarette butts, bottle caps, a toy Lego, and a lot of baby wipes and [feminine sanitary items],” Dibben-Young said, referring to the constantly-growing pile of smelly rubbish.

Other objects sometimes found in the mixture include clothing, jewelry, illicit drugs and partially digested food.

“You know when there is a sale on corn because there will be a lot of corn in the basin,” said Souza, smirking.

Joao said the bins have made him a little richer.

“I just found $3 last month,” he laughed. “I just threw it in the solution, rinsed it out, put it in my pocket, and I bought my next soda with that.”

The most he ever found in a bin was $24.

After the filtering process, your water travels through four giant, rotating disks that grow bacteria to naturally break down toxins and organic material.

The heavier solids, a slimy sludge, collect at the bottom of the eight-foot-deep tank and the sludge is pumped into a five-acre, green pond to allow the environment and algae to further remove harmful bacteria. After the sludge is separated in the tank, the remaining water moves through a sand filter and chlorine basin for final cleansing.

Calcium hypochlorite, commonly known as chlorine and used in swimming pools, is the only chemical used during the treatment process, said Souza. A 340-gallon container of concentrated chlorine continuously drips into the basin to disinfect the water from any remaining harmful bacteria.

After your wastewater completes the reclamation cycle — an estimated 9,000 gallons in one hour — it is pumped underground and into the water table from a 200-foot-deep “injection well,” where it can finish its natural purification cycle, said Dibben-Young.

Recycling from Lavatory to Lawn
Currently, wastewater facilities on the island of Maui recycle 3.5 million gallons of water daily and Maui County is regarded as the state leaders of reusing its treated water, according to Parabicoli. He said the county reuses 35 percent of the water to irrigate landscapes and agriculture, control dust, use as fire protection and toilet/urinal flushing as well as a source of drinking water for cattle.

However on Molokai, only 10 percent of the water is reused, which is only utilized on the reclamation facility’s property.

“I think [Monsanto] would be someone who might want this because right now they’re using fresh water for irrigation,” said Souza. “But it’s just cheaper and easier to use regular water right now.”

Parabicoli said reusing water takes a big financial commitment from the county to construct the infrastructure to deliver the recycled water to places where it can be used.

“The infrastructure was never put in on Molokai because [the county] never thought about it, and right now it’s just cost prohibitive,” said Joao. “To put the pipes, pumps and tanks in Molokai for only 220,000 gallons we are producing a day, it’s not feasible and it’s expensive.”

Trash Tips and Waste Education
Today, addressing public misconceptions about sewers and the reclamation process is an important step for more efficient facility operations. A common misconception, according to Dibben-Young, is that all trash can be flushed down the toilet.

“People don’t know that the sewer system is only made for organic material and that is…what you’ve eaten the night before and toilet paper,” she said. “So once it all gets here, we have to deal with what’s not supposed to be going into that sewer system.”

Dibben-Young said the most common pipe-clogging items you should never pour down the drain are grease and cooking oil. Absorbing it with newspaper and throwing it in the trash is a safe way to dispose kitchen grease properly, she added.

Parabicoli said another leading myth people have is that wastewater reclamation facilities cause pollution.

“These facilities prevent pollution by converting sewage into very clean and clear water that can be beneficially reused or safely returned back to the environment,” Parabacoli said via email. “The [water] that is disposed of into injection wells is at least 95 percent cleaner, if not more, than it was before treatment.”

Dibben-Young and Penny Martin, a local cultural and environmental educator, provide community outreach by giving students tours of the facility and explaining the process.

“The kids love the wastewater plant,” laughed Dibben-Young. “It turns out the more gross it is, the more fascinated they are with it.”

Dibben-Young said the facility’s stabilization pond is also an important nesting site for endangered Hawaiian bird species and that she can tie native birds and plants in with the facility tours, teaching the students how the reclamation ponds work as an ecological network.

“The wastewater plant is an ecosystem, but most people don’t think of it in those terms,” said Dibben-Young. “I just think it’s just getting out there and telling people how important this is and what a big role it plays in the ahupua`a ecosystem.”

According to Parabacoli, continuing water reclamation is critical to protect the community’s public health as well as the environment. He said the facility operators are often taken for granted by the public.

“In my opinion they are true professionals who should be regarded as environmental heroes for the great jobs they do and the dedication they exhibit by helping protect our environment,” said Parabacoli.

But for Souza, he said his job hits home.

“I like what I do here and I like to know what goes on with our wastewater,” he said. “I was born and raised here so I like being a part of the process to not pollute our island. That’s the best part.”



One Response to “The Poop Scoop”

  1. leo pono says:

    Hi Jessica! Good job on the great story! Its extremely educating & insightful! Thanks for all your hard work! I have 1 HUGE follow-up suggestion for you that would REALLY help YOU help ALL of the people of Molokai (and would probably get more readers too!) since the Kaunakakai Wharf is an essential part of our entire island community. In recent years, I’ve noticed a few swimmers and paddlers that frequent the Kaunakakai Wharf waters have contracted a SUPER extremely case of staph… an antibiotic resistant, flesh eating bacteria type, crazy heavy infectious sickness… you hear about it from time to time… people who got it, get SUPER sick, close to death sometimes and possibly almost amputate limbs (arms, legs, ect.), some people don’t share it cause they’re “shame”… super understandable… but here’s my point… Is there a connection between the K’kai wastewater plant “green lagoon” and the surrounding waters??? If so, how is it impacting the surrounding sea life and humans who frequent the area??? Tough question yeah??? How do you find out the REAL answer??? 2 suggestions… 1) talk to the LOCAL people and ask them questions; paddlers, swimmers, fishermen, harbor users, the general public, the kupuna, etc. 2) get the water ocean water tested from time to time in different surrounding areas by biologists or oceanographers… credible scientist types… high & low tides, after big rains, periodically, in different areas… I know the answer… truths like these need to be shared amongst EVERYBODY… especially when the state of Hi or Maui county don’t put any “at risk” signs along the water… sad but true… malama molokai and its people… knowledge is power… liberation through education… change for the better… aloha ke kahi i ke kahi… you need some leads for this “follow up” story Jessica, lemme know… I’m always happy to help SHARE and teach others about THE TRUTH… ALOHA!

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