Your Sewage Treatment Plant Is Spewing Methane

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Local facilities emit twice as much as previously thought, a new study says.

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Wastewater treatment plants are typically overlooked when it comes to reducing greenhouse gasses, but new research from Princeton University reveals the plants emit twice as much methane as previously thought.

Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas and the treatment plants should be part of any plan to reduce emissions, according to the study released last week. “Wastewater treatment plants are a major source of greenhouse gasses in cities and we need to start treating them like that,” said Mark Zondlo, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton and one of the authors of the research.

Published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal, the report is the largest conducted on methane pollution from wastewater treatment plants in the United States. The scientists examined 63 facilities in California and the East Coast. Their research showed that methane from these facilities exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates by the equivalent of 5.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Scientists use carbon dioxide equivalence as a metric to standardize the emissions of many different types of greenhouse gasses. The previous estimate for emissions by wastewater treatment plants was 6.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. The new study calculates that current emissions are now 11.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

“We have more than a million miles of sewers in the US filled with rich organic matter that may be causing methane emissions, but we have very little understanding of their scope,” said Z. Jason Ren, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, another co-author. 

While methane has long been a concern for scientists and environmentalists it is only recently that governments have focused on curbing the greenhouse gas. Cutting methane emissions as quickly as possible can drastically reduce the rate at which the planet heats up. 

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