State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Valentine’s Day at the Newtown Wastewater Treatment Plant

By: Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri

This past Valentine’s Day, Columbia University students in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development and M.S. in Sustainability Management visited the Newtown Wastewater Treatment Plant. For the second year in a row, Newtown Creek opened its doors to the public to teach visitors about how our waste is processed in New York City. Located in Greenpoint— a former industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn— the plant services parts of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.  Opened in 1967, it is the largest of New York’s 14 treatment plants and treats wastewater from household toilets, tubs, sinks and storm drains.

Students learned about the sophisticated wastewater treatment and disinfection processes used at the plant and were fortunate to hear directly from Jim Pynn, the plant’s superintendent. He detailed some of the plant’s efforts to become more of a green facility, which include using the methane gas produced in the treatment process to fuel “sludge” mixers. In addition, some of the biosolid byproduct is then used for land reclamation, which creates new land on waterfronts.

Plant managers led the tour to the top of the eight sludge “digester eggs”, from which students got a fantastic view of the Manhattan skyline to the east and Williamsburg to the south. Living in New York City where everything is accessible and, for the most part, functional, it is easy to take things for granted. However, the proper treatment of wastewater and reuse of its byproducts is necessary to maintaining a healthy society and is something every NYC resident should be grateful for.

Learn more about Columbia University’s new certificate in Sustainable Water Management (link to:

Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri is Associate Director of Education at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.


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