Biologists who study whole systems such as ponds, wetlands, meadows or woodlands have discovered that these systems have powerful attributes. These include the ability to self-organize, self-design, self-repair, and self-replicate.
They have a meta-intelligence that is remarkable. The secret underlining their behavior is due in part to the diversity of life within them. This diversity includes thousands of resident species from all of the five kingdoms of life. These species interact with each other in ways that have been perfected over vast reaches of evolutionary time.
In recent years, ecologists have discovered that they can create new technologies using principles found in natural systems. To these must be added a wide diversity of species from the wild. These living technologies, often called Eco-Machines ™, have been used to generate fuels, treat toxic wastes and sewage, clean up oil spills, repair damaged environments, and protect fragile environments. They have been employed as well to grow foods and other commercial products.
Over the last three decades Eco-Machines have been built and tested throughout North and South Americas and around the world in countries as diverse as China, South Africa, and Australia. They have come of age and their effectiveness is being demonstrated. The photograph and illustration here show a cold climate sewage treatment facility in Vermont. These are followed by photographs of an Eco-Machine in Rhinebeck, New York on the campus of the Omega Institute.
The Omega facility is remarkable in that it is carbon neutral. It generates its own electricity from the sun and uses its constructed wetland treatment cells to trap atmospheric carbon dioxide. In this it is doing its modest bit to stabilize the climate.
Living technologies are also changing how we think about water. They are beautiful and can be designed with ecological components that eliminate odors. They can be integrated into the fabric of a community and be part of its educational agenda.
Eco-Machines can even be revenue for a community and produce a wide variety of valuable products including flowers, trees and ornamental fish. In terms of cost, they can compete with conventional treatment systems and usually are less expensive to operate.
Ecologically engineered technologies can also be employed to maintain water quality in coastal ponds. The photograph shows a floating "Restorer" on East Lake in Anaheim, California that is helping to protect the water body from excess pollution and noxious algae blooms.
Increasingly treated water is being recycled and used for a variety of beneficial purposes, such as landscape irrigation. One of our California facilities treats sewage to a quality high enough that it meets the state's agricultural reuse standards. It irrigates alfalfa and fruit trees.
The other emerging place for living technologies is in growing foods. These are systems that use the same ecological design principle although sewage is not part of the process. The setting is usually an urban environment where space is at a premium. Some of the very best aquaponics facilities growing foods in cities are Eco-Machines that produce fish, freshwater prawns, vegetables and greens. They are becoming central to local cultivation of healthy foods for the future.
So why aren't there more living technologies around today? The answer is multifold, but includes the fact these technologies are young and unfamiliar to most wastewater engineers. The original Eco-Machine was built just forty years ago in a small town on Cape Cod.
The wastewater treatment community is only now becoming familiar with ecological technologies, with young civil engineers beginning to study ecological engineering and moving ideas into the marketplace. Many clients for waste treatment technologies continue to have unfounded concerns about the overall impact of their infrastructures on the community.
Long Island is an ideal place for the utilization of living technologies to treat its wastes and protect its lakes, salt ponds, and bays. It is only a matter of time before all homes will be required to treat, not just drain, their wastewater.
These communal eco treatment systems would provide an efficiency of scale, better operational reliability and a far more comprehensive water detoxification than individual septic systems. Rather than simply removing nitrogen and ammonia, they are able to filter a wider range of toxins including chemical and pharmaceutical waste, hormones, antibiotics, and water-borne pathogens.
Long Island is a fragile environment dependent upon rainwater and clean ground water. Responsible stewardship of Long Island's waters is perhaps the greatest legacy that we can give to future generations. Nature's wisdom can help us find our way to lasting solutions.
John Todd, PHD, is the founder and president of John Todd Ecological Designs, builders of natural systems for the treatment of wastewater.