Imagine a household wastewater system based on nature’s principles. Imagine that every time you flush the toilet, run a washing machine or dishwasher, or hose down your car, that water feeds an ecosystem, a microcosm of a wetland environment. Imagine that the person who designed such a system lives in Falmouth…
In the 1970′s, a group of forward-thinking oceanographers and engineers sequestered themselves on a few dozen acres on Hatchville Road. Their dream: to design a self-sustaining way of living, limiting their consumption to what they could grow or make themselves, and returning any waste to the natural cycle. This was sustainability before the word turned into a marketing term.
In addition to growing their food in a bio-shelter and living in super-insulated buildings, one of the New Alchemy founders devised a way to turn what is traditionally called “wastewater” into a resource.
Dr. John Todd’s vision adapted nature’s principles to create the EcoMachine, a surprisingly simple design that effectively breaks down the harmful microbes and complex nutrients in wastewater.
A homegrown industry
Today, Dr. Todd’s designs are marketed across the US and the world by his son, Jonathan Todd, through the Woods Hole company, Todd Ecological Design. From China, to Hawaii, to the Bahamas, the likes of Coca Cola Company, Tyson Foods, and the Four Seasons are integrating EcoMachines into their wastewater treatment strategy. While the systems work well on a campus like the Omega Institute, they have also been adapted for the cities of Eugene, Oregon, and Providence, Rhode Island.
Much like a traditional wastewater treatment system, an EcoMachine employs aerobic and anaerobic bacteria to treat water to a very high standard– but without relying on chemicals like chlorine. What’s more, the system is designed so that water may be reused (not for drinking!) to flush toilets, water house plants, clean clothes, and so on.
The beauty of simplicity
Traditionally housed within a greenhouse or a combination of exterior constructed wetlands, a robust ecosystem is created between the plants, microbial species and distinct treatment zones. Within the Eco-Machine, all the major groups of life are represented, including microscopic algae, fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and zooplankton, to snails, clams, and fishes.
Some EcoMachines are actually intended for aquaculture applications, wherein shellfish feed on the nitrogen in the water, and fish feed on the algae. Dr. Todd’s vision has been applied so that commercially valued trees, shrubs, and even edibles such as mushrooms, can be grown within the system. In short, this self-contained ecosystem that turns a problem into a solution.
Spreading the word
Inspired by Dr. Todd’s vision, local documentary filmmaker Kristin Alexander produced a short documentary, called Green EcoMachine. With this 11-minute film, she has exposed audiences of the Woods Hole Film Festival to the Awareness Festival in Los Angeles to the possibilities of sustainable wastewater treatment.
Alexander’s work with ecological designer Dr. John Todd will be showcased at the National Design Triennial: Why Design Now? at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, opening on May 14.
At a screening of her film at Cinema Politica last Friday, several members of the audience questioned why Falmouth– and other Cape towns– do not have access to the EcoMachine. They wondered what impact household or neighborhood EcoMachines would have on the region’s estuaries, which are steadily declining due to nitrogen pollution from septic tanks.
The only response I can give you here is to bring these questions to the Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan Review Committee, a convoluted name for the town board responsible for coming up with a way to tackle the problem. The committee meets every Tuesday at 5 PM at Town Hall. For those who can’t make it, the meetings are televised by Channel 13 and there is also an online forum. A big meeting on design alternatives is scheduled for May 27 at 7 PM at the Morse Pond School.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.