Not Wasted in Burlington

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Vermont, U.S.A.

Sewage and Food Scraps – from waste to wealth.

You might say that Burlington, Vermont is getting its sh*t together. And its banana peels too.

We munched on a few bananas as we pedalled the hundred miles down from Montreal. This leg of our round-the-world eco-odyssey took us through cornfields, up and over maple carpeted hills, and through idyllic islands dotted with beaches. They beckoned us to take a plunge. Hot and sweating, we couldn’t resist.

Nestled between the shores of Lake Champlain and the rolling Green Mountains of Vermont, Burlington is a small city of 40,000 people and an ecological pioneer. It is on the cutting edge of new approaches towards stuff most people don’t even want to talk about. Rotting veggies and stinky sewage – our world’s rejects – are being transformed into beauty and wealth in clever ways, pointing towards a healthier and sustainable partnership with our planet.

Take the Intervale Compost Project. Over the past few years they have been collecting tonnes of food waste from hundreds of grocery stores, restaurants, and other institutions. By piling it up and turning it they annually transform 10,000 tons of food waste, leaves, horse manure, sawdust, and even liquid waste from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream operation into a valuable soil enhancer. The micro- organisms who busily gobble up slimy discards especially love the ice cream treats.

The composting operation is generating over $0.5 million per year in sales. And whereas previously the stuff ended up in the landfill, now five new jobs have been created. Gardeners, the city parks department, and the nearby organic farms are all eating the compost up faster than they can produce it.

There is an elegant arrangement worked out with the local hospital. The hospital’s food scraps are delivered to the compost field, the finished compost goes onto a nearby organic vegetable garden, pesticide-free veggies go to the hospital, and round it goes. Healthier food for patients means healthier patients. Composting and organic agriculture certainly make for healthier soil.

And once the healthy food is eaten, what’s left gets flushed away. It’s gone, thank goodness, and we only think twice about it when the toilet backs up.

Flush toilets, invented by Thomas Crapper (we kid you not) over a hundred years ago, transformed urban public health. These toilets, along with the chlorination of water, virtually eliminated cholera, a deadly public menace of the day, from western cities.

But flush toilets are also very wasteful, guzzling enormous amounts of water. And they’re costly: after the flush the “black water” travels through a maze of concrete pipes to a centralized sewage treatment plant. These pipes are extremely expensive to build and maintain. In fact, the value of the sewer infrastructure below the streets usually surpasses the value of the streets themselves. And in many older cities these pipes are in dire need of major repair.

Traditional sewage treatment plants are expensive, malodorous, chemical intensive and polluting – not the kind of place to have a Sunday picnic.

Now consider the experimental Living Machine in neighbouring South Burlington that treats the sewage from 1,000 households, even in the dead of winter. Inside a greenhouse are two dozen open, cylindrical tanks, full of floating green plants. Trees grow, hibiscus bloom, and tomato plants bear fruit. Mayflies flit, snails slide, and butterflies meander. Below the water intricate root systems provide the perfect place for bacteria to chow down on the sewage. Fish like it too. Even a frog, somehow found its way in recently. How it hopped three feet up into a tank nobody knows.

By the end of the process the wastewater is clean enough to swim in, and almost clean enough to drink. All this for less cash than a conventional treatment plant, and in an ambiance of beauty. By adapting nature’s tricks and techniques for cleaning water, living machines have shown that certain plants can break down toxic materials, and others will even isolate and sequester heavy metals. Nature’s magic can turn waste into wealth.

Other cities could learn from this experiment, perhaps not bothering with repair and replacement of old pipes, and instead installing living machines on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis.

Burlington’s brilliance doesn’t end there. The city has aspirations to increase food self-sufficiency. They are aiming to boost the proportion of local food produced from 1 to10%. And they’re taking serious measures to improve energy efficiency and switch to renewables. One of the world’s largest wood burning power plants produces much of the local electricity.

Burlington, isn’t a green utopia, however. There are too many cars along with the noise and pavement they bring in their wake. Yet the city has put some alternatives in place, replacing a few downtown blocks of motor traffic with a lively downtown pedestrian mall. And on the front of each of the local and regional buses is a bike rack for two, thereby encouraging healthy door-to-door alternatives to the car.

Burlington and its progressive City Council have much to be proud of. And although billboards are prohibited throughout the state, a sign could be posted at the city gates: Burlington – A Place With Little To Waste.

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