"The Campus Wild"...wild with wetlands?

By Lauren Valle

Recently, I came across a report published by the National Wildlife Federation titled, "The Campus Wild: How College and University Green Landscapes Provide Havens for Wildlife and "Lands-on" Experiences for Students". The report profiles the initiatives of campuses around the United States ranging from green roofs, storm water systems and food-producing gardens to the creation and maintenance of botanical gardens, wild-life preserves and arboretums, some of them several hundred acres in size.  

It is clear that many campuses across the US are taking leadership roles in managing their landscapes, investing in sustainable infrastructure and offering wild spaces for students to learn and play in. It is our quest here at Nu Ecological to design wastewater treatment systems that incorporate natural processes and integrate seamlessly into campus landscapes in the form of living classrooms.  It's exciting to read about all the campuses that are already investing in this type of green infrastructure. 

Dragon flies are one of many insect species that rely on wetlands. Several years of their lives are spent as nymphs living in fresh water. Image Source: Jkadavoor/Wikimedia Common

Dragon flies are one of many insect species that rely on wetlands. Several years of their lives are spent as nymphs living in fresh water. Image Source: Jkadavoor/Wikimedia Common

A constructed wetland is a great example of treating wastewater through natural processes. When applied correctly as part of a full treatment system, a constructed wetland can perform nitrification, denitrification and final polishing of effluent. These wetlands can be built indoors, allowing people to get up close and personal with plants and experience nature at work. When built outdoors, wetlands can be planted with native and flowering species and made accessible to humans through boardwalks and paths. Outdoor wetlands serve as a watery home as well as foraging and breeding grounds for a range of species such as migrating birds, aquatic invertebrates, amphibians and insects that could not thrive otherwise. 

At least 50% of the original wetland area in the continental United States has been lost to drainage, land-use development and other human activities (source). In the coming decades many current wastewater facilities will need to be upgraded and new systems built. Why not build wetlands as part of an onsite treatment system and gain the added value that natural habitat offers a campus? In most cases an entire onsite treat system is buried underground, foregoing to opportunity to improve a campus landscape. When compared to a conventional septic system for onsite treatment, adding constructed wetlands decreases the amount of harmful nutrients that may end up in nearby water bodies. Constructed wetlands are valuable not only as a means for wastewater treatment but for the ecosystem services that they provide.

Constructed wetlands are a visible and valuable campus asset for colleges and universities investing in green landscapes and infrastructure. We applaud those institutions who are leading the movement for a more wild future.

Constructed wetlands treating wastewater at the Omega Center. Rhinebeck, New York. 

Constructed wetlands treating wastewater at the Omega Center. Rhinebeck, New York. 

"Humanity is on it": Feeling inspired by Paul Hawken at AIA's COTE Summit

by Lauren Valle

Speaker Paul Hawken

Speaker Paul Hawken

On Wednesday night two of us from Nu, myself and Jacob Kramer (who is working with us on marketing), attended AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE) Summit opening event, an inspiring talk by Paul Hawken. I had one of those moments sitting in the audience as his talk progressed where the hair on the back on my neck stood up. I felt distinctly that I was in the company of a group of people who were deeply willing to confront humanity's current situation with the earth and to dedicate their work to real and measurable solutions. Hawken, nearing the end of his talk, expressed his optimism for the future and the importance of embodying fearlessness at this time. "Humanity is on it", he said, and after I wrote this down in my notebook I added, "--YES!".   

Hawken talked at length about his current role as the Executive Director of Project Drawdown.

From their website:

DRAWDOWN: The point at which greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begin to decline on a year-to-year basis.

 He pointed out that while there is a plethora of dramatic news covering what scientists are guessing are going to be impacts of global warming in the next century, no one is talking about 100, 50 or 40 most substantive actions that need to be taken to reverse global warming. Project Drawdown has been working to create that list, based on rigorous science and facts. Their website  and book are coming out next April. 

Hawken noted that when the earth was only 1 degree hotter 6000 years ago the earth was a different place, with animals currently found in sub-Saharan Africa swimming in northern rivers. Hawken says a 2 degree rise in temperature, the current goal set at COP21 in Paris, would be "biological chaos".  Our goal is not to hold temperature rise at a threshhold but to reverse the effects.  

Illustration of annual fluctuations in carbon dioxide. Source 

Illustration of annual fluctuations in carbon dioxide. Source 

Hawken points out that earth already knows how to do this and naturally fluctuates 5-6 ppm annually. During the winter in the northern hemisphere, culminating in April, carbon dioxide builds in the atmosphere, and begins to decline in May when plants return and the trees leaf out. In a very simple and powerful way, this illustrated to me how the earth as an organism is inhaling and exhaling just in the way we humans are. Hawken says, "respiration and inhalation of CO2 is out of balance".

Hawken says the goal is to bring carbon back home through land use techniques.  As someone that is always thinking about plants (along with my work at Nu I am a homesteader and work with medicinal plants),  the simple message that I pull out from these comments is that we need more plants on the earth, more biological activity, more robust ecosystems to give the earth more breathing capacity. Which is all the more evidence for why the next generation of wastewater systems should be plant-based, bio-diverse systems, filled with as much life as we can fit into them. Not just because they effectively treat nutrients and bacteria, can serve as habitat for other species, reconnect people to their water resources, reduce sludge production and bring nature into the built environment, but because we need them to help the earth breath. Another beneficial function of our ecological wastewater treatment systems to add to our growing list.

Toward not reinventing the wheel in the innovation economy

Lauren Valle (in purple sweater) and Max Rome (in green sweater at back) of Nu Ecological talk with potential mentors for the CleanTech Open accelerator. 

Lauren Valle (in purple sweater) and Max Rome (in green sweater at back) of Nu Ecological talk with potential mentors for the CleanTech Open accelerator. 

by Max Rome 

"What if every social impact funder asked startup applicants this: “What five organizations working in the same sector, within the same geography, or with the same demographic have you spoken with, and how have you built on the lessons you learned from their successes and failures?”

 -Daniela Papi-Thornton, Tackling Heropreneurship, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2016

Reading Daniela Papi-Thornton’s piece on “Tackling Heropreneurship” crystallized a jumble of thoughts and conversations we have been having around the Nu lunch table. Papi-Thornton describes a bias within today’s business environment that steers young entrepreneurs toward a path of rapid innovation and disruption and away from a slower path that might include apprenticeship or deep immersion within a particular field, issue or challenge. The question of how to balance forward motion with an appropriate knowledge of, and respect for, the work that has been done in the last decades has been on our minds. We are not the first group of motivated people to pursue a vision of ecological wastewater treatment. How do we build a company that works toward this shared vision without reinventing the wheel?  

Last week we were accepted into the Northeast Cleantech Open (CTO), a “global accelerator for early stage clean technology startup companies.” This year CTO is focused on companies working in the water/wastewater sector. For us, this an opportunity to learn from people who have developed successful businesses and to get tied into a network of other organizations and individuals working on issues of sustainable water use. We hope to emerge from the Accelerator with a better understanding of the market for our services and with a business model that can sustain us as we grow and take on new challenges.

Since setting up shop in Boston we have been impressed by the incredible infrastructure around supporting new businesses and new ideas. CTO is one example of this but there are many others. Co-working spaces such as Greentown Labs and Impact Hub provide affordable and flexible work space for nascent companies while organizations like the New England Water Innovation Network (NEWIN) are committed to translating research and novel business models into successful technologies, products and companies. At times, all of this energy can seem skewed toward fostering virtual businesses leaving me to wonder what room there is for a company focused on creating enduring physical projects.

Wednesday evening Lauren Valle and I attended the Clean-Tech Open launch party. The event was hosted by LogMeIn, a software and service company founded in 2003 to provide cloud-based remote connectivity services. Their office is in a handsomely renovated brick warehouse in Boston’s Seaport District.  We heard 30 one-minute business pitches and then settled in for an evening of networking and meeting potential mentors. Standing around a series of small tables and eating Israeli couscous and avocado out of mini ball jars we chatted with a range of experienced entrepreneurs, technologists, and smart business people. Over the night one of the question we were heard more than a few times was, “What is your innovation? What is your new technology?”

The work we do at Nu Ecological is non-proprietary. It is not based on cutting edge research or a new technology. Rather, it is based on the judicious use of existing and natural technologies combined in a creative and appropriate way within an often complex regulatory network. There is a need for this kind of work. Sometimes it can save the client money, sometimes it is an investment in sustainability with a non-monetary return. Sharing this long-winded answer we saw a lot of heads nodding. As much as the ‘innovation economy’ may be geared toward new ideas I am confident there is room in it for us. There is room to do our work and keep chipping away at an old idea that is still a good idea.

Source: http://ssir.org/articles/entry/tackling_he...

Nu Thinking

Emerging wetlands along the Providence River waterfront with a mute swan taking in the view. Unintended ecosystems at work in the city. Providence, RI. 

Welcome to Nu Thinking! We are glad you found us.

Over the next year we will be using this space to maintain an ongoing conversation about the field of ecological design and innovative wastewater treatment. We will be sharing readings and articles that we find of particular interest.

As we develop this business we have been taking the time to not only stay current with interesting new projects and technologies but to also look back at the important work that has been published over the past decades.

For us one of the recurring themes in ecological design is the tension between new technologies and low-tech, sometimes ancient techniques. How do we create a wastewater ecosystem as efficient and multi-functional as natural wetlands but compatible with the current scale and density of the urban environment?

We believe the current water crisis requires a transformation in how people understand and live with wastewater. We believe wastewater treatment has a major role to play in creating vibrant public spaces and establishing cities in balance with the natural environment.