Honey Boats

by teresa, 51art

Today’s entry has taken more than a month to write.  I could have made it easy on myself and simply posted the image, but somehow I felt there would be more to this story.  And so began the research: boats that sail the East River.  In particular this boat.


I have witnessed these vessels day after day, week after week, month after month bound for destinations unknown.

What I found, in short, has to do with completing a final step in New York City’s Wastewater Treatment System.*

The cargo?  Sludge (honey).  The journey?  Continuous.

Every day, wastewater goes down toilets and drains in homes, schools, businesses and factories and then flows into New York City’s sewer system. Runoff from rain and melting snow, street and sidewalk washing, and other outdoor activities flows into catchbasins in the streets and from there into the sewers.Wastewater treatment plants, also called sewage treatment plants or water pollution control plants, remove most pollutants from wastewater before it is released to local waterways. At the plants, physical and biological processes closely duplicate how wetlands, rivers, streams and lakes naturally purify water. Treatment at these plants is quick, taking only about seven hours to remove most of the pollutants from the wastewater. In the natural environment this process could take many weeks and nature alone cannot handle the volume of wastewater that New York City produces. -NYC Environmental Protection*

There are seven steps in treating wastewater; only 8 of the 14 NYC Wastewater Treatment Plants are capable of completing the all of these seven steps.  This is where our Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) vessel M/V Newtown Creek comes in.  This ship is involved with transporting the honey from “Digestion” or step 6, to a facility that will perform “Dewatering” or step 7.

This last step reduces the liquid volume of sludge by about 90% creating a bio-solid cake that is then transported to PA, VA, NY or NJ for disposal in either landfills or to be mixed with other natural materials that are then used to fertilize golf courses, home lawn & gardens and so on.-NYC Environmental Protection*

The transporting of sludge is not something new.  In the article Marine Vessels Serving New York City, not only did I learn about the history of this process, but also how monitoring water pollution has evolved into today’s high standards.


Municipal sludge vessels have been a part of New York City’s sludge disposal system since the late 1930s. The Federal Work Projects Administration (WPA) funded and built the first three Motorized Vessels(M/V): M/V Wards Island, M/V Tallman Island, and the M/V Coney Island. Before these vessels were available, sludge was routinely discarded into the surrounding waters from the few sludge facilities operating at that time. As a result, the harbor waters became so polluted that incoming traffic would find their hulls cleaned of any marine life. Unfortunately, much of the protective coatings would be damaged as well.CLEARWATERS*

The sludge on this vessel sails from Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant to the Wards Island Water Pollution Control Plant. –Working Harbor Committee

(Wards Island, now connected to Randalls Island, was a separate island until the late 1930s. Little Hell Gate Channel and the surrounding wetlands which separated these two islands, were filled in with debris from construction projects in Manhattan joining the two into a single island.) –NYC Department of Parks & Recreation*

Mitch Waxman, a historian, activist and author of The Newtown Pentacle covers in great detail the activities at Newtown Creek: Wastewater Treatment Plant.  I recommend getting to know his writing as it is always informative and entertaining.

As far as the origin of “Honey Boat” goes it is not clear, but this endearing name has been a reference for decades.  In the days when I was a camp counselor, we used to refer to the trucks that emptied the latrines as “Honey Wagons”.  So with that I will let you come to your own conclusions.