John Todd’s triumphs of ecological alchemy

June 10, 2015

The stakes were high for John Todd in 1988. He had walked away from a promising career in academia to do the science he felt he must—growing food not just organically, but ecologically—at the New Alchemy Institute, a hippie-ish experimental farm he founded with his wife, Nancy, and scientist Bill McLarney. Having accomplished what they planned, they shuttered New Alchemy in 1991, after being defrauded by someone they thought was their friend.

But in 1988, Harwich, in the southeast corner of Cape Cod, needed to clean up its septage lagoon. Every drain and toilet in the town goes into a septic tank. When the tanks are pumped, trucks dump sludge into the lagoon. Harwich gets its drinking water from shallow wells. The groundwater is under 20 feet of sand, and the lagoon was trickling through into the only potable water around.

Septage is 40 to 100 times as concentrated as sewage. In addition to feces, full of dangerous bacteria, the lagoon contained household and industrial chemicals, including 14 carcinogens. Toluene, methylene chloride, and trichloroethane were in high concentrations.


Todd built a small system of plants, bacteria, and animals to clean the waste at a Vermont ski resort, and Harwich officials offered to let him try to clean up their mess. He set up a row of translucent five-foot cylinders, and pumped the lagoon water through them. Each cylinder had a raft of aquatic and terrestrial plants floating on top. It took 12 days for water to flow out of the last barrel and into an artificial marsh, in a trough that ran the length of the row of barrels, then back into the lagoon. Would 21 tanks of flora and fauna be up to the chore?

The lagoon was a dangerous mess that Nancy Jack Todd once described like Dante’s Inferno. “The banks were crusted over with a mould from the vapors below, which concretes upon them, which does battle with the eyes and nose.”

For his PhD thesis, Todd researched olfaction in fish, and contended that pollution jammed the process. At 30, he was appointed Associate Dean of Science at San Diego State College, where he was tapped to head the new Department of Environmental Studies.

His friends were hoping to homestead in the mountains just north of the Mexican border. They asked Todd and Bill McLarney to find out if the land they rented could support them. It was sandy desert, but the biologists found water by studying the vegetation. This raised a larger question: Can humanity support itself on this planet?

Todd’s family and Bill McLarney moved to Cape Cod and set out to find an answer. They founded the New Alchemy Institute on an 11-acre former dairy farm, and scrounged food scraps from local restaurants to make several hundred tons of compost the first year. The Alchemists raised fish in wading pools under plastic-covered geodesic domes, then in progressively larger greenhouses and more sophisticated ecological microcosms.

Aquaculture produces more protein than raising conventional livestock for several reasons. Fish are more efficient feed converters than warm-blooded animals, since they don’t use calories to maintain body temperature. Balanced diets can come largely from garden waste and algae, reducing the need for supplemental feed. These systems are safer for the livestock and less polluting than conventional feedlots. One source of fish food was insect larvae, harvested over the Todds’ septic overflow pool.

New Alchemy Institute drew people of like mind, including gardeners, solar tinkerers, and wind power enthusiasts. Celebrity guests included Margaret Mead, E. F. Schumacher, Buckminster Fuller, Pierre Trudeau, and Gregory Bateson, who said the Institute was inventing a “paradigm with a future.”
The climax was construction of two “arks”—one on Cape Cod and another on Prince Edward Island—that integrated living space with ecological food production.

Twenty years of practice made the Harwich system a success. It treated waste ecologically, reducing nitrogen levels to well below Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, eliminating 13 carcinogens and 99.9 percent of the toluene. The area around the lagoon—“Dante’s Inferno”—became pleasant.

Todd went on to restore another pond in Harwich, treat sewage for Providence, Rhode Island (sequestering heavy metals for mechanical removal), clean effluent from a brewery in Vermont, and build a system at the Mars chocolate plant in Las Vegas that survived a disastrous combination of human and system error.

The chocolate factory was a small demonstration project. Late on a Friday, it disgorged waste into the tanks of plants, bacteria, and fish. Plants sloshed out of the tanks; fish died. The technicians locked up and went home. When they returned on Monday, the system had digested its feast and was operating normally. Mars installed similar systems in its plants around the world.

Todd has also treated Tyson Chicken’s wastewater lagoon in Maryland, and the raw sewage from high-rise housing along 50 miles of fetid canal in Fuzhou, China.

Since 1999, he has been a research professor and distinguished lecturer at the University of Vermont. He won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, the Daimler-Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design, the EPA’s Environmental Merit Award, the Bioneers Lifetime Achievement Award, and, with Nancy Jack Todd, the Lindbergh Award.

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