Pollution Doesn’t Stand a Chance Against This Living Technology

An early experiment at a city landfill showed how algae and sunlight can repair environmental damage.

Lagoons contain most of the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s top 15 priority pollutants, mostly carcinogens or suspected carcinogens.

Photo by Christopher Seufert/EyeEm/Getty Images

In the 1980s, I was confronted with what seemed like an impossible challenge. Two of my friends had prematurely died of cancer, and I began to wonder if their illnesses could have been caused by carcinogens in the environment. I was determined to find out more, and what, if anything, could be done. One day I visited a landfill in the small town of Harwich on Cape Cod. In the center of the town dump was a series of lagoons that were filled with a fetid waste that had been pumped from septic tanks into tank trucks and brought to the site for discharge. I later learned the liquid came from household septic tanks or cesspools and from a wide variety of sources including small businesses such as gas stations, machine shops, stores, veterinary clinics, assisted living complexes, and even medical facilities. The list of sources was long.

The lagoons themselves were dug into Cape Cod’s coarse sand and left unlined. The waste liquid, or leachate as it is called, would percolate down into the ground, leaving the solids behind. The solids were buried later when the lagoons were filled back in. I subsequently learned that the lagoons contained most of the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s top 15 priority pollutants, mostly carcinogens or suspected carcinogens.

The travesty did not end there. The lagoons were dug in coarse sand that was very porous to the liquid migrating through them. The problem was compounded by the fact that they were situated directly above the groundwater that was used by the town for drinking. I was appalled by the potential of the lagoons to contaminate the groundwater and subsequently a 13-acre pond and a stream below the landfill. The practice of holding wastes in unlined ponds has now been stopped, but for most of the 20th century such insidious contamination of the groundwater went on unabated throughout the United States and around the world. This is not an isolated story.

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I began to inquire with wastewater treatment professionals why these wastes were not treated and learned that they are typically 40 to 100 percent more concentrated than sewage. As a consequence, waste treatment plant operators do not normally want to handle them because they are so toxic and can interfere with sewage plant operations. Further, there did not seem to be a cost-effective technology on the market to treat such waste, and most communities could not afford much in the way of treatment. There was a technological gap that needed to be filled somehow, so I decided to design a solution. The question became one of where I should turn for inspiration to develop such a technology. As an ecologist, my bias was, and is, that nature needs to inspire design. There is a very pragmatic reason for this. Over the past 3 billion years or so, nature, through trial, error, and adaptation, has experimented with an unimaginable diversity of problems and stresses. It “knows” how to cope with most of the toxins in the environment by using complex systems composed of members of all the kingdoms of life to solve its problems. Life has evolved this way.

On Earth, the sun sustains life. Sunlight is the primary energy source for almost all of the ecosystems on the planet. I decided that our natural systems technology should be based upon solar power. Mine was a clear break with tradition, as most conventional waste treatment technologies do not use photosynthesis in the purification of contaminated water.

The design was based on cylindrical tanks made from a thin fiberglass material that allowed sunlight to penetrate the sides as well as the surface. This created a three-dimensional solar effect and the walls of the tanks supported vibrant algae-based communities. These tanks were connected in series to create a facsimile of a flowing “river.” The facility was built at the Harwich landfill. 

My next pivotal decision was to introduce a great diversity of life forms into the solar algae tanks. My reasoning was that only through introducing thousands of different species of organisms would we find the right ones for creating biological communities capable of dealing with all the toxic compounds in the wastes. To achieve this end, my colleagues and I gathered living organisms from over a dozen ecosystems. They included local salt marshes, streams, ponds, vernal ponds, wet spots in the woods, and even a pig wallow on a local farm. We introduced the organisms into the tanks. The water within was then recycled to distribute the diversity of species throughout the whole system before adding the waste.

Once the waste was added, the system very quickly self-organized and self-designed itself into completely new ecologies that were specifically adapted to its contents. The system went even further. It created unique ecologies for each stage in the transformation of the waste stream. Each tank in the series was slightly—and sometimes very—different from the one before it.

Lynn Margulis and her students at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole studied the communities that developed in the tanks. She recognized the various life forms within the tanks but, to her great surprise, the communities that had formed on the walls of the clear-sided tanks were completely new and unique. The possibility that this kind of ecological invention could actually happen had been predicted in 1972 by the ecologist H. T. Odum in his visionary book Environment, Power, and Society.

More by accident than design, I had inadvertently included representative species of all the kingdoms of life in the systems. It would be years before I began to appreciate the significance of this strategy. I would also learn that a diversity of organisms from a variety of parent ecosystems could produce systems with a meta-intelligence that had a highly specific ability to self-organize, self-design, and self-replicate. They were capable, in fact, of surviving through long periods of times, possibly centuries, with minimal human support.

I also started to design analogs of different parent ecosystems directly into the technologies themselves so that they have equivalents of a marsh, pond, and stream stages that were interconnected. The combination of organisms from different parent ecosystems and the analogs of the ecosystems within the technology itself produced the meta-intelligence mentioned above. This is profoundly important because it carries within it a legacy of vast reaches of evolutionary time. I was seeing the potential for totally new kinds of technologies such as “eco-machines” in which humans were the junior partners in the endeavor. Eco-machines are living technologies that are engineered to undertake a variety of tasks from growing foods to treating wastes and repairing damaged environments. Ecological design was destined to become a new kind of design science. That said, we still have much to learn about how these eco-mimetic or living systems work as they do.

Our test and demonstration technology at the landfill performed incredibly well. The waste traveled through the system in 10 to 11 days. By the time it reached the end, it was crystal clear. The quality of the water was very good and met drinking water standards for being free from heavy metals. We subsequently learned where the metals were stored. The bulk of their mass found their way into the algae-dominated communities on the walls of the tanks near the upstream end of the process. The priority pollutants or toxins in the system were removed to levels that were below detection in the water at its point of discharge. Only a trace amount of one of the chemicals, toluene, was detected, and it had been removed by 99.9 percent. We ran the prototype eco-machine from spring through the summer and into the fall.

The project then took on an ironic twist. The pilot study had been funded by the Massachusetts Foundation for Excellence in Marine and Polymer Sciences. Nevertheless, a regulatory entity, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, decided to fine me thousands of dollars for carrying out the experiment. Because of the success of the project, I was shocked and bewildered when my name and organization appeared on the front page of The Boston Globe. I was declared a scofflaw. It turned out that I had made a mistake. In Massachusetts, a scientist is apparently not allowed to design a pilot waste treatment facility. Only a civil engineer who has the letters “PE” (professional engineer) after his or her name can do so.

William Reilly, the administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, subsequently heard about my plight and sent one of his experts to look over the facility and the experiment. The expert declared it bona fide. The EPA subsequently honored me with the first Chico Mendes Memorial Award for the project and the lawsuit against me was quietly dropped.

Later, a more permanent facility was built on the site. It was housed within a greenhouse so that it could be operated year-round for several years. The facility was subject to intense scrutiny. It performed well, and the technology was eventually permitted by the state.

I cannot describe my joy that first summer at seeing the waste transformed into clean water. The experience gave me the confidence to explore new problems and do so widely throughout the world. With this first eco-machine, we learned that it is possible to do good things in bad places. Harmful chemicals can be treated. We continue to explore the number of chemicals that living technologies can render harmless.

Excerpt from Healing Earth: An Ecologist’s Journey of Innovation and Environmental Stewardship. Published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2019 by John Todd. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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