The other end of the S-bend: the Rouse Hill recycled water plant.

The other end of the S-bend: the Rouse Hill recycled water plant.

WARNING: This post contains video links the squeamish might find confronting. Best not viewed over a meal.

"Eat shit and die" is one of the more juvenile taunts you might hear from a detractor but it quite accurately describes the life cycle of some of our country's most under-appreciated workers.

Next time you sit for your morning ablutions, spare a thought for thiobacillus denitrificans, a type of  bacteria that literally gulps down your poop while awaiting death in enormous reservoirs at sewage treatment plants across the country.

Last month, I had the opportunity to check out the largest reticulated recycled water plant in the world, at Rouse Hill in Sydney, as part of my Preparing for the Apocalypse Checklist, Phase II (How do we rebuild?)

The gentleman who oversees this gargantuan enterprise is Nick van Hamond who, despite the hectares of heavy machinery, pumps, tanks, pipes, gauges and computers he keeps running, sees himself primarily as a farmer. His 'herd' is billions upon billions of bacteria or "bugs".

"They're very simple creatures," says Nick, "they're like men. They just need food, water and oxygen."

Their 'food', of course, is our waste, which consists of what goes down your toilet, sinks, shower and drains and gushes into Nick's state-of-the-art, industrial 'farm' at up to 650 litres per second during "peak flow" times. (That's 21 million litres a day and up to 77 million litres a day during heavy rain).

After this putrid tide has had non-organic substances such as kid's toys, rags, false teeth, jewellery, sand, stones and $50 notes (!) strained out of it, the flow is split into enormous pools where the "bugs" go to work.

Standing on a catwalk above hundreds of thousands of litres of bubbling poop, known charmingly as "mixed liquor", Nick explains he's aerating his bugs with jets of oxygen to stimulate their appetite.

"Imagine you're in front of the big screen TV in your lazy boy chair with a six pack; that's the bugs now, they're in heaven," says Nick.

He points to another vast reservoir which, unlike the turbulence of the "bug party", lies almost undisturbed.

"That's the bugs after 20 years of marriage, they're starving," says Nick, explaining he's switched off their oxygen, part of a process where the bacteria oxidise the nitrites and ammonia we humans produce daily in our privvies.

Sadly, life doesn't improve for Nick's little mates. While the majority of the water is again split off to be "decanted", then treated several more times before release into waterways, the bugs are sent to the "death camp".

These are enormous tanks where the water is largely removed from the 'biosolids', which now resemble and smell much like mud and are rich in nitrogen and phosphorous.

There's even dozens of tomato plants growing on the almost dry crust of the final tank, testament to the indestructibility of the seeds, even after passing through a human's gastrointestinal tract.

Astonishingly, the soil-like solid in the tanks is partly the bodies of those tiny bacteria - billions of their 'corpses' - which when further dried and treated end up as some mighty fine fertilizer for NSW farmland.

Across the country, trillions of litres of waste water is treated in this way - the water returned to our waterways or households for non-drinking use, the biosolids aiding farmers and land reclamation.

Nick's proud of the job he does for Sydney Water and underscores the obvious, though widely unrecognised, point "we can't 'make' new water. There's a finite amount on the planet, so we better take care of what we've got".

Pity we can't say the same for the bugs. At least they died for a good cause.

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