CLEARWATER — A sweet syrup made in Clearwater and used to flavor drinks from tea to margaritas has a second purpose in the city's sewage plants.
Monin gourmet syrup, a French sweetener sold in 60 of the country's 100 largest restaurant chains, is pumped by the gallon into the river of human waste that streams through city sewer plants.
The sugary mix pulls nitrogen out of the sludge, preventing algae from taking hold in Tampa Bay and Stevenson Creek.
This strange science won't likely help the syrupy drink's sales at restaurants such as Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Wendy's or the Cheesecake Factory, where the syrup is mixed into coffees, cocktails, lemonades and milkshakes.
But it has earned the city a national Alliance for Innovation award for smart thinking and has allowed the city to avoid buying some expensive chemicals for sewage treatment, saving about $40,000 a year.
Every day the city treats 15 million gallons of sewage — the equivalent of nearly two dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools — so it's clean enough for the effluent to be pumped into local waterways.
Two years ago, part of that process involved using a special nitrogen-removing chemical that cost $3 a gallon. Then a city engineer named Rob Powers had an idea: Why not try the syrup?
The sugary blend's high levels of carbon made it perfect to treat the sewage, said David Porter, the city wastewater environmental technologies manager.
The idea worked well for Monin, too. At its factory off Belcher Road in north Clearwater, Monin had to pay for disposal of leftover or discarded syrup at the end of each day.
Now, the city collects the leftovers in 250-gallon plastic jugs every few days, counting the syrup as a credit on Monin's utility bill. The city's three treatment plants each pump in about 100 gallons of the clear syrup every day, just enough to treat the waste.
The syrup converts the nitrogen into a gas, which bubbles out of the treatment tanks. The reclaimed water that remains is then discharged into local waterways.
The leftover "biosolid" sewage, a dark sludge with an "earthy" smell and the consistency of a damp sponge, is trucked off to fertilize sod fields and other non-food crops, Porter said.
The sugary syrup from Monin's Range Road plant, opened in 1997 to cut down on costly exports from France, has other uses, too.
"We also sell it to a local bee farmer, who uses the sugar to feed the queens," said Johanna Velez, Monin's director of quality assurance and product development. Since 2008, she said, the syrup has fed more than 374 million bees.
Made with Everglades sugar cane, the syrup is sticky, odorless and clear. Monin blends the syrup into hundreds of flavors, from Desert Pear and Irish Cream to Ruby Red Grapefruit and Blueberry Pie.
Its Clearwater plant ships more than 1 million liter bottles per month across the Western hemisphere, including Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America. Monin runs three other plants in France and Malaysia.
In the complex chemistry of water treatment, Powers said, switching out chemicals is not uncommon.
But swapping out a commercial chemical for a local factory's byproduct is rare, Porter said, and something he has yet to see catch on elsewhere. The syrup, he said, is just as safe, stable and readily available as the other stuff, Porter said.
The city doesn't expect to change its sewage treatment process any time soon.
"What comes in is pretty nasty-looking," Porter said. But of the effluent after treatment, he said "if I held it up in a bottle next to drinking water, you wouldn't know the difference."
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.