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Why throw away wastewater? Why call it wastewater at all, when it is loaded with valuable nutrients that need only be reclaimed and redistributed? We can extract the phosphorus and nitrogen to be used as fertilizer, and purify the “wastewater” until it is sparkling clean and ready for reuse.

Nature reuses and recycles its resources without creating toxic dumps or polluted waterways. By imitating nature we can learn to recycle our wastewater relatively inexpensively, with minimal distribution costs, and the bonus of reclaimed resources ready to feed our fields or fish, or flush our toilets and water our lawns.

In many parts of the world, water is scarce and often polluted. In many countries, population density and the location and size of reservoirs create water distribution problems. Inadequate wastewater facilities, even in the richest countries, pour excess untreated sewage into rivers, lakes and oceans. Conventional solutions to wastewater treatment are not only expensive, but are designed to throw water away and hence, do not address issues of water scarcity and distribution, or limited financial resources. (Photo of polluted river, left, by Halford House.)

Waste not, want not.

Throughout the world, alternative systems designed to mimic nature are operating to address the problems of conventional wastewater treatment facilities. These alternative systems use man-made ponds, constructed wetlands and designed soil filters to transform wastewater. (Photograph, right, by Halford House. Pamlico County constructed wetland .)

In the case of smaller alternative systems, wastewater is treated where it is created, with the nutrients and water often being reused on site. At the Triangle School Wastewater Treatment Facility in Chatham County, North Carolina, water is being recycled for toilet flushing and landscaping and an otherwise unusable building has been reclaimed and renovated.

When you flush the toilets at Stensund Folk College (WWW), in Trosa, south of Stockholm, Sweden, you help feed the fish. The school´s wastewater is treated in a greenhouse, where it is used to produce plants and fish in an integrated cultivation system. (Sketch left from Stensund Folk College WWW site.)

Ethel M’s Chocolate Factory in Las Vegas treats the concentrated wastewater from confectionery production using Living Technologies’ Living Machines consisting of a series of large tanks hosting a diversity of organisms which work together to digest and break down organic pollutants. The company plans to reuse the water for onsite truck washing, toilet flushing and watering the cactus garden (Environmental Solutions, November 1996).

Living Technologies will construct a Living Machine to be a part of the Exploris Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina. This system will serve as a companion to the Triangle School Wastewater Treatment System, and together they will provide an informational database for similar projects in the state.

In the case of larger community-wide systems, local governments are learning that they can save sewage treatment dollars for construction, maintenance, and operation by building Advanced Integrated Pond (AIP) systems, as in St Helena, California (WWW). Construction costs of AIP systems are 1/3 to 1/2 of their conventional counterparts, while operation requires only 1/4 to 1/5 of the energy. In the AIP system, algae uses the sun’s energy and its own photosynthesis to aerate the pond, instead of an electrical aerating device that would be found in a conventional system. Scientists are working to capture the methane gas produced by fermenting algae in the settling pond, so that electricity can be generated on site. The ponds also have the added bonus of removing heavy metals, biodegrading halogenated organic compounds, trapping parasites, and creating far less sludge and cleaner effluent.

Some communities are creating small new industries as a spin off of alternative wastewater treatment using designed ecosystems. In Arcata, California (WWW), 94 acres of ponds and wetlands have been created to treat local wastewater. The starch-laden cattails thriving in the treatment marsh are being harvested and converted to ethanol which is then used to produce gasohol.

In the case of less wealthy countries with serious health hazards resulting from insufficient sewage treatment facilities, affordable effective treatment alternatives incorporating large ponds and marshes are dramatically altering the quality of life. In Lima, Peru, water is treated by a series of ponds teaming with algae and organisms and fueled by sunlight. After 20 days, water is safe for reuse and feeds the fish ponds where phytoplankton gobble up remaining nutrients. Fish are harvested for human consumption and the sludge from the treatment ponds is used as a fertilizer on agricultural fields. Waste has become Resource.

Despite the benefits of treatment systems which closely mimic nature, state regulators and many scientists remain skeptical of “low-tech” systems and are unwilling to embrace alternatives which do not have an established record of performance or state-sanctioned design guidelines. However, as budgets continue to tighten and as state and federal regulations become tougher, simpler, less expensive and effectively designed ecosystems for wastewater management and water recycling may become more appealing.