Deephams Sewage Works, in Ardra Road, Edmonton, is currently making the headlines as Thames Water believes it is in need of an upgrade, at an estimated cost of between £300million and £400million.
Reporter Hermione Wright decided to get her hands dirty and investigate the sewers, which deal with household waste from Enfield, Haringey and Barnet.
My job is full of surprises, but traipsing through a sewer with my hands full of excrement is probably the biggest to date.
It started as a joke in the office. Over the past few months, I have been lucky enough to test delicious school dinners and eat my weight in Italian gelato. I had got off lightly, and it was time to get my hands dirty — literally. So, I was sent on a tour of Deephams Sewage Works in Edmonton.
Okay, it wasn’t glamorous, but it was very relevant. A consultation is running until October 24 as Thames Water would like to upgrade the 35 hectare plant to cope with London’s growing population. At the moment, the plant deals with waste produced by 885,000 people, but it would like to improve its systems to serve a future population of 941,000. That’s a whole lot of poo.
The afternoon was full of revelations. First, as I was handed a rather unattractive hard hat, high vis jacket and practical footwear, I realised my lipstick and string of pearls were a little OTT.
Next, I innocently asked resident sewer expert Chris Mckenna to share tales of unusual items spotted floating sewers. I expected plasters, but mobile phones, children’s toys, potato peelings and boiled eggs frequently find their way into London’s underground sewage systems.
Who knows how they end up there, but I would advise phone users to avoid popping their treasured handsets into their back pockets... As for boiled eggs, I’m lost for words.
Although I can’t say I have spent much time thinking about sewage, I can safely say I did not expect it to look the way it does. I imagined it would be thick, steaming sludge, stinking from the very minute it entered the systems. In fact, it’s known in the sewage world as 'grey water.' Approximately 80 per cent of what flows through Deephams is water — shower water, bath water, water spilling from our taps.
I walked down what seemed like miles of metal grates, under which I could see the grubby water pouring beneath me. It was almost romantic – like a holiday near a waterfall, but maybe I’m just easily pleased.
I spent longer than I should have waiting for the latest iPhone model to flow beneath where I stood, but all I could spot was a fair few oversized rags and a few stray baby wipes. I won’t get too gory — I was brought up well — but all I’ll say is that I saw more sweetcorn than in the frozen food aisle in Tesco.
The final stage of the process will stay with me for a while. The water is cleaned of all its bad elements, purified, and sent back into the Thames. However, what everyone wants to hear about is the bad bits — the human bit. It’s transformed into sludge cake – although not the tasty calorific kind.
The waste, which ended up in my (gloved) hands, is heated to at least 34 degrees for two weeks, after which it is ready to be used as fertiliser on our farms. Waste not, want not, after all. For those of you who want to know, it was quite pleasant to the touch, like silly putty.
As for the smell, which is another hot sewer topic, it’s not great. Part of the proposed upgrade is to cut the smell, which Thames Water believes it can reduce by up to 75 per cent. The stench attacks in waves, depending on the stage of the sewage break down, but I can’t say I left smelling of roses. It’s probably described as eau-de-toilette, but not the expensive sort.
It was an unusual way to spend an afternoon, but an enlightening one. If I can offer any words of wisdom, I would advise you not to chuck your toys down the loo, to eat your boiled eggs, but to go easy on the sweetcorn.