John Todd: ‘Waste Streams’ Into “Fish Food”

We’re creating a new culture based on earth stewardship.

Note: Shel Horowitz’s book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, contains a great deal of other information about the interplay of marketing and social change, and ways to move a business toward both environmental and economic sustainablity.

In downtown Burlington and South Burlington, Vermont, you’ll find a very unusual industrial park: a place where brewery wastes turn into a growing environment for mushrooms–and in the process creates an enjoyable biopark, a green and vibrant ecosystem in the middle of the business district, where downtown workers can enjoy a unique natural setting.

Welcome to the Intervale, 700 acres of sustainable enterprises and eco-friendly public spaces.

This project is one of many lasting gifts to the earth–AND to the business world–from John Todd. Back in 1969, John Todd founded a research center called the New Alchemy Institute, which pioneered a number of interesting sustainability technologies, such as graywater recycling (which reuses water from dishwashing or bathing to flush toilets or water gardens). In 1981, he left New Alchemy to found Ocean Arks International, a water pollution think tank. He still works there and also teaches at the University of Vermont. Todd’s speech to the E.F. Schumacher Society ( on October 27, 2001, in Amherst, Massachusetts, is the basis for this article.
Todd defines ecological design as “the intelligence of nature applied to human needs”: a way to form a new partnership between the ecological needs of the planet and the physical and commercial needs of human beings.

“It is possible, using nature’s intelligence, to reduce negative human impact by 90%,” he says. Todd approaches that job as a student, looking to understand and learn from natural systems. His advice to those who want to leave the planet in better shape than they found it: “Find a piece of the world, an ecology that has meaning to you. Begin to learn its narratives, its architecture–and begin decoding…the path to human architecture. Calculate how the forest builds food chains, how systems sustain diversity and longevity. Coral reefs tell a lot about how to work in a nutrient-poor, sun-rich environment. Mangroves, oceanic meadows, prairies, deserts–all these environments can be teachers. We begin to invent and evolve ecological technologies for food, fuel, waste conversion, teaching, architecture. These technologies have begun to spread around the world–maybe not quickly enough, but at least it’s started.”

Todd described a project in Cape Cod to save a pond that was receiving 30 million gallons of toxic landfill waste a year. Ocean Arks staff remineralized the pond by adding a rock floor and brought the dead bottom water up to get light with floating windmills. They installed “restorers”: solar and wind-powered biosystems that process the contaminated water through a series of cells, each with different ecologies
–integrated networks of microorganisms, higher plants, snails, and fish. Each of these mini-ecosystems removes specific toxins from the water. Designed to work as a system, the restorers–nine cells in this case–digested 25 inches of sediment within two years–and the water is clean enough to drink now. “This pond was constipated; we uncorked it,” says Todd.

In Maryland, Todd worked on a project to clean up waste from a large chicken processing plant. The highly concentrated waste was being dumped into a lagoon, which flowed directly into Chesapeake Bay. “We planted restorers with 28,000 different species of higher plants and animals. It grew very quickly. Each was designed to break down or sequester different compounds. We reduced the electrical power to convert the waste by 80% and cut capital costs in half.” This kind of system is “very effective in agriculture, because it’s cost-effective enough for farm use.”

Todd is now working on a project in Fujo, a Chinese city of 1.4 million. Fujo’s many canals are all contaminated by raw sewage. “We will build restorers in 80 kilometers of canals. Where fish can survive, people get very excited.” Todd’s system will eventually decontaminate the canals to the point that the fish are safe to eat.

One of the underlying principles in this work is sharing resources among different pieces of the system and changing the paradigm about what’s left over. Instead of disposing of a waste stream, Todd encourages people to think about how to use that material as an input. The goal is zero emissions: no waste generation at all. If wastes are considered as inputs, they can lead to new commercial enterprises–for instance, a mushroom farm. All of a sudden, the cost of waste disposal turns into capital for a new revenue stream.

This is how the natural world works, at least when undisturbed by human pollution.
When these systems are integrated together, they not only eliminate waste, but also provide shared synergy, reduce costs, spread technical and legal expertise, and create both economic and environmental improvements.

In Vermont, city government has embraced the Intervale project wholeheartedly. The complex includes a composter that handles much of the city’s garbage, the largest wood chip electricity generating plant in the United States–with its waste heat diverted to underground heating rather than released into the atmosphere through cooling towers–a fish farm and a commercial brewery. Eventually, the complex should also support a greenhouse, an organic cut flower business, a flatbread bakery, a restaurant, a gourmet organic popcorn producer, and a mushroom farm. Other than the popcorn venture, which may be economically marginal, the rest should be self supporting. The businesses were identified and recruited by a research team of Dutch MBA students.

These different manufacturers are all based around a cell ecosystem that Todd and his colleagues developed. Each cell is a plastic tank inside a greenhouse, and the water passes through each tank in sequence, just as it does in the projects where Todd has put in restorers.

There are four cells. The first consists of fish with algae on screens. The second cell is an eelgrass ecosystem (including clams, burrowing animals, and aquatic plants)–which uses sunlight to produce oxygen. The waste settles to the bottom and doesn’t affect the fish, which are in the earlier cell. The third cell is horticulture crops, on the surface. And the fourth cell has more screens, “crawling with animals and algae, powered by fish waste and sunshine; you can throw away the chemicals.”

The fish will double in size on their own, but with food supplements will grow much larger–and become commercially viable. This is the basis for a Community Supported Agriculture project (see related article in the September 2001 Monthly Frugal Fun Tip) that uses the nutrient-rich water to grow basil.

Meanwhile the greenhouse has switched from treating sewage to treating brewery waste, and the only odor is the pleasant smell of the flowers. The system changes waste conversion from a “burden” into an “economic engine” by “cascading the waste.” The bait fish grow on naturally occurring bacteria. “They are removing the sludge that you’d normally incinerate or landfill.”

The spent grain from the brewery, it turns out, makes a perfect medium for gourmet mushrooms. “We can’t grow them fast enough” to meet demand. “The mushroom waste becomes fish feed–and then, throw in some earthworms and turn it into soil for mixed greens. Once the greens are harvested, you’re left with a powerful organic fertilizer.

The system even collects heavy metals out of the waste stream in salable quantities: materials recovery rather than poison in the landfill. Todd used the phrase “gossamer engineering” to conceptualize the web-based integration.

The conception of which businesses can work is specific to the site. In this particular industrial park, there were three failures: a potato chip factory that couldn’t crack a very tightly controlled market, a biodegradable plastics manufacturer that was counting on using the potato waste, and a biodiesel venture. Todd says these may be able to work elsewhere, but in this particular ecosystem, they were not the right businesses.

These concepts can also work easily in developing countries. Todd is working on a water treatment sustainability project in a refugee camp, using a long transparent pipe to expand and contract gasses. The range of temperatures and conditions is so great that it kills viruses. “I begin to see a model for college and urban food production. We can begin to think of strengthening our own food security in these troubled times. We’re creating a new culture based on earth stewardship.”

Todd notes, “The biotech industry looks for magic bullets–single solutions to complex problems. Nature is a symphony”; it doesn’t work that way.

Visit Ocean Arks international at

Note: Shel Horowitz’s book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, contains a great deal of other information about the interplay of marketing and social change, and ways to move a business toward both environmental and economic sustainablity.


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