JOHN TODD , September 19, 1998 - A Transcript from LINKS to the FUTURE
My story begins as a sort of biological explorer. I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to study a wide variety of environments from coral reefs to tropical rain forests, inshore marine environments, deserts, atols in the Indian Ocean - in many parts of the world. As I looked at these different environments, I began to see a kind of meta pattern going on. There were connections between the forest and the sea, the coral reefs and the desert. It's as if nature had some kind of set of instructions that allowed it to design, to self organize, to self repair, and to self replicate. It seemed to me that inherent in all of these beautiful living systems were a body of processes that had meaning beyond the forest, beyond the coral reef, and really had meaning for ourselves . . . and that this earth wisdom could be applied to the design of technologies. Could we in fact learn from this world and create engines or living machines that have inherent in them the wisdom of the natural world? Could we grow our own foods, transform our wastes, could we repair damaged environments with living technologies that were in fact at their heart natural systems? Could we in fact develop what we've come to call 'living machines'?
Unlike the inert machine that is strictly engineered, the living machine is made up of hundreds of different types of life forms ranging from microbes to higher plants and fish and clams. Would it be possible to create a living machine that had the intelligence of ecology - that is, it could self design, self repair, self reproduce? Over the last 25 years working in different parts of the world, we came up with the answer. It is possible to technologically rethink how humans interact with the world so that we can in fact become partners with the ecological process.
We can have stewardship manufacturing, stewardship waste treatment, stewardship food production. In this world, there's a kind of seamless boundary between the human ecological engineer and the wild. In this world the negative human footprint begins to shrink. We calculate that if humans move in this direction, it's possible to have a high culture, or high civilization on roughly 10% of the human impact we currently place on this earth. It's possible to do much, much more with less . . . to create a stewardship culture and reduce by 90% the human impact on the planet.
A critical part of the story began in Harwich, MA, where an unlined lagoon held all but one of the EPA priority pollutants from the town's waste, pumping of septic tanks, restaurants, old peoples' homes, clinics - everything. Below the lagoon is coarse sand 25' above the drinking water of the town. This is a prevailing problem everywhere in the world. We have to link what we do on the ground with the geological structure underneath.
To repair this problem in Harwich, we built 21 giant aquaria with piping to create a solar river with dozens of different natural environments into which we put thousands and thousands of species of plants and animals - brought from swamps, pigwallows, ponds, salt marshes, woods, many different places. At each level of type and strength of waste a different community organized itself, so we had 21 different ecologies. When evolutionary microbiologist Lynn Margolis and algologist Richard Guerrero looked at it, they said they had seen the individuals before, but they had never seen these communities. So what we had done was ecological engineering.
We provided surface areas for the microorganisms and special racks for plants - the process is ongoing to discover the connection between higher plants and waste. Living Machines need at least 3 to 4 distinct ecological types to have the intelligence of larger systems in the natural world. We start with a flow-through area and progress to vacuum-cleaner fishes, the armored catfish for example, which reduce sludge production downstream to zero. In 12 1/2 days, the water was free of the priority pollutants except for one (99.99%). In the first two tanks, the heavy metals were sequestered in attached algal communities, the pathogens, principally coliform bacteria, had gone from millions to much better than drinking water standards (below 15), and nutrients were removed. A commercial greenhouse facility has been built on site to operate year round. We had a strong interest in clean air as well as clean water (typically waste treatment plants with aerators cause fine droplet particles to get into the upper atmosphere where particles and pathogens are blown around. The state of Massachusetts, after a technical evaluation, approved our installation for septic waste treatment.
To protect Lake Champlain from degradation - a strikingly beautiful area, the heart and soul of Vermont - a Living Machine facility was built purposefully in an upscale neighborhood to show that it is possible to provide waste treatment that is beautiful and doesn't stink so that it can be a good community companion. This facility treats up to 80,000 gal/day from the City of Burlington, with a third research line to process up to 20,000 gal/day and proves that you can remove nitrogen when temperatures reach 5-6 degrees centigrade. Three parallel treatment facilities, cellular in design, connected like beads on a string, cause a flow through tanks 10' deep and 14” diameter, containing open aerobic ecologies with special rack systems which create zones of still water so that roots of plants can penetrate deep while providing surface areas for microorganisms. To reduce residuals to a very small volume, an aquaculture unit is included with goldfish and Japanese coy for the aquarium industry as an economic benefit. I predict that within 10 years, waste management will be an economic industry. A newly patented system, the ecological fluidized bed, permits large volumes of rapid circulation - and quiet environments which allow filtration by benthic organisms, clams, etcetera. Flowers such as the calla lilly and roses create additional economic benefit, although roses do not contribute to the filtering process as calla lilies do. We have proved that nitrogen removal in winter is not significantly worse than in summer. Retention time is a little over two days. We meet the UN standards for water reuse. Phosphorus removal is very high reaching 90% compared to the average 40-50% of municipal treatment. We do not yet know where the sinks are. This facility is going through a selection process with regard to the work plants can do. We're studying the adaptation of various plants to particular environments, the relation of roots to shoots, economic variables. Currently, 2,000 pounds, wet weight of plant material is composted on-site. Our aim is to reduce solids to insignificant levels and increase energy output.
Corkscrew Swamp, FL, National Audubon Society Facility, has a very large number of visitors. No waste from the Visitor's Center may leave the site. Only organisms from the swamp itself could be used in the treatment facility. In Florida, plants are active year round, so that was not a problem, unlike northern climates where native plants go dormant and it is necessary to use tropical plants. The final effluent flows through a subterranean lined marsh where performance is very high. Because Florida doesn't recognize ultra-violet as a purification agent, chlorination and de-chlorination occur before the water is directed back to the flush the toilets. Water from sinks and drinking fountains balances out with water evaporating to the atmosphere from plants, so it is a zero discharge system. There is a mound system for security, but it has never been used.
A Vermont Rest Stop treatment system on Highway 91 where there was no soil percolation, treats, sterilizes, and directs the purified wastewater to toilets. Excess from the treatment system goes to a small wetland system.
The Ethel M. Chocolate Factory on the outskirts of Las Vegas has a living machine and wastewater garden which treats the effluent from solids and recycles water on site. There is an ecological fluidized bed, 3 distinct ecologies, and water is pumped to pond systems for the Botanical Garden. BOD is 2,000 going in and 2 - 2 1/2 coming out. Fats, oils, greases, which are very high going in are less than 1 coming out. The ecological systems are also able to stand extreme perturbation from strong cleaning agents used in the factory. Odors are effectively scrubbed from the air in earth systems. A flat greenhouse cover closes at night to retain warm air.
Waco, Texas has a fragmites reed bed living machine designed to treat a percentage of the whole waste stream with particular emphasis on creating an aesthetic system to treat waste from the Snickers Bar Plant. The project is zero discharge and is economically viable.
Master Foods Plant, Australia, has a significant problem in that they process a wide range of food products which change hourly and daily. The waste is treated with a three stage living machine and fluidized beds. The waste is very high strength, BOD's of 5,000 and above. Anaerobic reactors in the front end make a viable reuse of gas produced from the living machine. Blended 50% with natural gas, it provides 50% of the factory's power, saving the company $100,000 a year annually.
A brewery in Sonoma County, CA uses a living machine to treat and reuse water to support the vineyard and hop gardens.
The Body Shop in Toronto uses a living machine to treat human sewage in so pleasing a configuration that employees eat lunch in the area. The main factory in England uses a living machine to treat cosmetic wastes.
North of Toronto, we link waste treatment with architecture in the Board of Education building where inner city kids are taken to learn about nature and Native American studies. They have created a building that is powered and cooled naturally, that treats its wastes - so that it is a microcosm of the larger world. A water sculpture, marsh, pond treats wastes which flow below the surface so that the children are not in contact with it. A fountain connected to a photovoltaic array on the roof is powered by the sun, so that the water runs fast or trickles depending on the amount of energy generated, demonstrating to the children the amount of solar energy striking the building. This situation, where the flow varies, turned out to be a perfect microclimate for mosses which established themselves there. At the base the water drips through the mosses creating the purest water in the world and demonstrating a lovely connection between energy and life forms.
New projects are going in at the Oberlin College Conference Center, YMCA in Kitchner Ontario, a zero discharge facility at the University of Montana will recycle every waste the University generates including toxic materials from the laboratories which are notorious producers of hazardous waste.
Flax Pond is a 13 acre water body which in 1990 was completely comatose, having received 30 million gallons a year from a toxic landfill and septic lagoons. Sediments were 14' deep. We created a floating island at the eastern end which powered by wind and photovoltaics, circulates up to 100,000 gallons of water, drawn up from the bottom, through 9 different cells. In the last series we use plant-based systems, the first 3 are ecological fluidized beds. The process changed the anoxic condition at the bottom to one that was oxygen rich. It began to digest 50,000 cubic yards of sediment, sandy beaches appeared, the diversity of animal life in the pond increased by 4 times. This alternative to a multi-million dollar dredging project cost a few hundred thousand dollars. We analyzed the catfish in the pond, and found only traces of mercury and none in the flesh or liver, so that they were pronounced as safe as most fish supplies and better than those found in marine environments.
The following Universities are engaged in research along these lines: Ohio State, U.MD, U.VT, U.FLA, U.CA Davis and Berkeley, U. AZ.
There is no single solution to environmental problems, but if you step out of the box, ecological thinking itself is a powerful tool to reflect the larger workings of nature and in different situations is very cost effective. We have built systems in all five continents and in seven countries, the newest in Sardinia where there were in-shore marine contamination problems. I have learned as a result that you can go into bad places and do good. That it is possible to restore damaged environments in a cost-effective way. That ecological restoration begins an economic engine that disaggregates waste treatment and makes it possible to consider changing from long pipes, pumping stations and unattractive aeration basins to a more beautiful means of treating waste that allows it to be incorporated as an aesthetic part of the community.”