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CapeCod 12/05/2010 - 04:49PM

Breaking down the wastewater

In the 1970s, a group of forward-thinking oceanographers and
engineers sequestered themselves on a few dozen acres on Hatchville Road-- just about 10 miles from Woods Hole. 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, shown in Earth Keepers at Dr. Todd's home in Falmouth. The surprisingly simple design effectively breaks down the harmful microbes and complex nutrients in wastewater, while providing nutrients for plants and fish.

Spreading the word

Inspired by Dr. Todd's vision, local documentary filmmaker Kristin Alexander produced a short documentary, called Green EcoMachine. After Earth Keepers, we showed her 11-minute film, which has shown audiences from Woods Hole to Los Angeles the possibilities of sustainable wastewater treatment.

Alexander's work with ecological designer Dr. John Todd will also 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.

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 fish.

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.

After the screening, several members of the audience questioned why Falmouth– and other coastal towns– do not have access to the EcoMachine. They wondered what impact household or neighbourhood EcoMachines would have on the region’s estuaries, which are steadily declining due to nitrogen pollution from septic tanks. One member of the audience pointed out that we should just look at who benefits from the "big-pipe" solution, multi-billion dollar public works projects.