Perched on the edge of Milwaukee’s Lake Michigan is a large factory that stands out from its neighbors due to a mysterious, pervasive smell. On a windy day, the smell can be caught by the wind and blown to the other side of the city, so that even those who don’t live near the facility catch a whiff.
The source of the smell: fermenting poop. This isn’t as gross as it sounds. In fact it’s pretty cool. Since 1924, Milwaukee has been home to a water reclamation plant called the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility that pioneered the way cities clean their wastewater. At the facility, the water undergoes four basic steps:
1. Screening- large pieces of garbage (like towels and gravel) are cleaned out of the water.
2. Primary clarification- oils float to the top of large cleaning tanks while “solids” float to the bottom to be collected
3. Biological treatment- tiny organisms break down organic material by eating it
4. Disinfection- chlorine is added to the water to break down disease-causing organisms, and the water is returned to Lake Michigan
After these steps are taken, the only thing that remains from the process is the “solids” (AKA: the poop). This poop is then dehydrated, fermented, and dried to make a product called “Milorganite.” The origin of that name: Milwaukee + Organic + Nitrogen. This product has been sold as a fertilizer since 1926, and can even be seen in the movie Caddyshack. There are now many cities that produce a similar product, but Milwaukee will always be known as the city that pioneered the process.
For the interested explorer, the process can be seen by taking a tour of the facilities. The only caveat is to wear close-toed shoes, and, of course, be prepared for the smell. Hard hats and protective glasses will be provided, as well as a sample of pre-packed Milorganite to touch with your bare hands, and possibly a bag to take home!