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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

LOE Profile Series #3: John and Nancy Todd

Air Date: Week of

Inventors John and Nancy Todd have devoted much of their lives to designing and implementing, waste water treatment facilities. Their innovative systems use nature's filters to do the job. Dan Grossman explains in this latest profile.


CURWOOD: Sewage is hardly the stuff of revolutions, but don't tell that to John and Nancy Todd. For decades, they've looked for ways to use natural processes to transform waste into resource. As founders of the nonprofit New Alchemy Institute, and later the for-profit Ocean Arks International, the Todds have pioneered the field of ecological engineering. They've demonstrated that plants and microbes can handle sewage better and cheaper than industrial facilities, while producing food for other plants, animals, and even people. Dan Grossman visited the Todds as part of our continuing series on 25 intriguing people involved with environmental change.

(Objects being moved, scraped, spilled.)

J. TODD: What you're seeing is the very top part, and on the top is the plants, the trees, and that's the nursery part.

GROSSMAN: The word most often used to describe John and Nancy Todd is "visionary." And when I meet them at a new pilot plant for purifying San Francisco sewage, I can see why. A small forest of potted saplings covers the top. The tree's roots are bathed in the nutrient-rich waters circulating in plastic tanks. John Todd says just as important is what's hidden below.

J. TODD: Underneath those trees is the aquatic communities: the fresh water clams, the snails, the snail population...

GROSSMAN: After treatment, the water is crystal clear. Even stubborn chemical wastes, he says, are conquered by this biological onslaught.

J. TODD: Any pollutants, industrial solvents, things like that, are immediately entrapped in these complex ecologies where the combination of bacteria and algae break them down and render them harmless.

GROSSMAN: John Todd is a biologist, and Nancy is a writer and publisher. Together, they have spent the better part of their lives designing systems like these that rely on the natural abilities of living organisms to treat toxic and municipal waste. And on a visit to Ocean Arks International, the Todds' headquarters on Cape Cod, I learned these living machines do much more than just treat waste. They also produce food.

(Running water)

J. TODD: We are growing one fish per gallon in this water. We use horticulture to purify the water. When I got started, I was a doom watch biologist; I was studying the effects of industrial chemicals, and everywhere I looked I saw the world being unraveled. And then I got concerned with what systems are robust, what systems are frail, what's the difference between them. Asked the question, could doom watch knowledge be applied to creating systems that don't automatically destroy?

N. TODD: We turned to water because we basically, as we came to realize that it was unsafe to drink the water here on the Cape and in many other places, that that was saying something's profoundly wrong about the way we were managing as a culture.

J. TODD: Simply taken, water is the most important element. Where it doesn't exist, there really is no life.

N. TODD: And if you've ever noticed people around water, they're happier.

J. TODD: I have been searching for the instructions in nature. How does a pond or lake organize itself? And slowly, have begun to develop a series of technologies, living technologies, which really are reflections of how nature works, and what separates living machines from dead machines is that their parts are alive.

N. TODD: I'm very hopeful about the possibilities, if you like, for ecological design. I really do feel at this point in time that the obstacles are social, political, economic. The design principles and the ecological technologies are ready to go.

J. TODD: For example, we can grow foods. We can treat wastes, even some of the most toxic wastes on the face of the planet, we've done that.

N. TODD: We don't have to live in a time where things are slowly unraveling. We can live in a time that's very healing, both for the human population and also for the ecosystems in which we all live.

GROSSMAN: The Todds have already installed sewage treatment plants, like the one in San Francisco, in several communities. And the Body Shop cosmetics company uses one at its Canadian factory. John and Nancy Todd predict that by the 21st century, ecological engineering will be used widely to build sustainable communities. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.



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