#TourDePoop: The Great Canadian Wastewater Bicycle Tour

'Why not have fun with social media?' thought Natasha Niznik, a wastewater engineering technologist. And so began a silly hashtag, a bicycling pilgrimage and the opportunity to spread the word about wastewater.
#TourDePoop: The Great Canadian Wastewater Bicycle Tour
Natasha Niznik, an engineering technologist for Toronto Water (Ontario) is in the midst of a light-hearted odyssey to visit every wastewater treatment plant in the province via bicycle and chronicle her adventures on Twitter with the hashtag #tourdepoop.

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It started with a hug but has grown into a quest.

Natasha Niznik, an engineering technologist for Toronto Water (Ontario) is in the midst of a light-hearted odyssey to visit every wastewater treatment plant in the province via bicycle and chronicle her adventures on Twitter with the hashtag #tourdepoop. And although Niznik’s search is all in fun, it stems from her love of the wastewater industry.

“(The idea) started off with a photo of me hugging the sign to Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant in Toronto,” Niznik says. “In the summer of 2013, I was working as a summer student for the city at the F.J. Horgan Filtration Plant. One day, I received a call at work asking me if I wanted to transfer to a wastewater treatment plant. The call was from someone I had only met a handful of times but had immense respect for. She had been kind enough to remember that my interest was in wastewater over drinking water and was offering me the chance of a lifetime to work at this mammoth of a plant. I was so excited. A few days after that, I found myself near Ashbridges, and I thought it would be a fun idea to take a picture that would show just how thrilled I was about the transfer and announce it to my friends.”

Niznik, an amateur powerlifter, took up bicycling the next summer. While plotting potential rides using satellite maps, she noticed that bike routes often went by wastewater plants.

“I thought it might be fun to stop by and take photos with the signs as a kind of cheesy way of sharing my interest in the industry,” she says. “We were getting the Water Environment Association of Ontario Young Professional social media accounts up and running at that time, and I was interested in ways utilities and other serious topics could be fun. I am a huge fan of kitsch, and while none of the photos are actual selfies, I think selfies are a really interesting method of self expression.”

Initially, she gave #tourdepoop the tagline, “A quest to hug every wastewater plant sign between here and Niagara,” but the quest soon expanded. Thus far, she has photos with 30 signs or buildings at wastewater plants, plus two at drinking water facilities.

“So far, I've hit most on the shores of Lake Ontario and the Saint Laurence River between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Montreal,” she says. “I don't think I’ll ever hit them all in the province because of accessibility and other issues, but I kind of like to think of it as a fun goal. One major roadblock is that it depends heavily on the interpretation of satellite images, and there is no good, mineable source of information of all municipal wastewater facilities. As a side project, I’m trying to come up with a map of all the plants in the province based on information that I can find online. Hopefully, I’ll be able to match up photos of their signs with many of them, even if they aren't all by bike.

“There have been two or three (plants) that I just skipped because they were missing both a sign or obvious buildings. It makes me sad that some plants seem to hide from the neighbors by not announcing their existence through signage, but I do understand that sometimes the relationship can be a little tense or that there could be security concerns. I feel like wastewater plants are a vital part of the community, and they should be visible so that people are reminded of the vital service they provide and come to better understand our role as resource recovery facilities.”

Niznik’s favorite plant on #tourdepoop — other than those in Toronto, to which she admits a bias — was the Skyway plant in Burlington, which is across the road from a beach and features an old-style gas storage dome. Her biggest surprise on the tour has been encountering plants she wasn’t expecting.

“I work in a plant, and I’ve visited a lot of plants through work and WEAO, so I’m pretty good at smelling them before I see them,” she says. “A couple of times, I’ve been out on rides and noticed the distinctive aeration process smell or seen that distinctive municipal precast concrete in places I wasn't expecting because the trees in the satellite maps have obscured the plant or I’ve simply been lazy in searching before we’ve gone out.”

Some folks might question why Niznik seems so fascinated by wastewater plants in her spare time, even though she works in one. To her, it’s just a natural extension of her career.

“I’m a process nerd,” she says. “What really interests me about plants is seeing the variety in processes even between plants that were designed by the same firm to run on the same principles. Microbiology and process control are what I like to work on the most. I like to meet the people that work at the various plants and learn about their challenges. I get the opportunity to do that though my job and involvement in WEAO. When it comes to the tour, I don’t interact with the plants or staff. It’s simply a chance to capture and share their public face and maybe get people thinking about what goes on behind those fences.”

Niznik’s partner, a programmer not involved in wastewater, thinks her quest is “silly” but accompanies her on most trips, acting as her photographer and even touring some plants with her. And the public’s response to her #tourdepoop tweets has been positive.

“It’s been heartwarming to know that there are so many people out there who share this interest and love for the work,” she says. “The most interesting response I’ve had was that someone requested a route they could take on their own bike ride and visit some plants. I hope to share more routes publicly in the future.”

Niznik plans to continue her tour but realizes it might never be complete. That, she said, is part of the fun.

“There will always be somewhere else to bike to,” she says. “It would be really cool to see others take photos with signs and perhaps put together a collaborative photo map of signs around the province or even country.”


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