A Different way to Treat your Wastewater

In the never ending quest to clean up wastewater there are thousands of different products that have been invented.  One of these products is called the Living Machine.  It’s less of a product though, and more of a wastewater treatment system.  The Living Machine uses the knowledge that natural wetlands are great filters for wastewater and applies that knowledge to provide an ecological, cost effective, and sustainable solution.

The original concept for the Living Machine was thought up during the 1980’s by Dr. John Todd.  Since then the design has continued to be revised and perfected into the product they have today.  The basic concept is to provide an artificial wetland to treat the wastewater in the same way that it is done every day in nature.  However, this is different because this system can be used anywhere whether there’s water nearby or you’re in the middle of the desert.  This system works by continuously flooding and draining a series of “wetland cells” to mimic the tides that happen every day.  However, because the Living Machine does this is done a number of times throughout the day the natural process is sped up which means a faster turnaround of wastewater treatment.  This is done by naturally putting oxygen into the water, and, just like in nature, the microorganisms in the vegetation then go to work to filter out all of the pollution that is in the water.  In the end, just like after water passes through a natural wetland, you have clean water that can be used for watering plants, flushing toilets, industrial processes, washing down work areas, and anything else that non-potable water can be used for.  Here’s a great illustration of an example of how the system works.

One of the benefits of this system is that it can be installed and used anywhere as opposed to sending wastewater offsite to a treatment facility miles away.  The Living Machine has been installed in the lobbies of buildings, at schools, at resorts; basically anywhere that wastewater is produced.  I think it’s amazing that you can have this system in your building’s lobby treating your wastewater, and to the people walking by it just looks to be a beautiful display of flora.  Also, if the system is outside but in an area where the climate is not friendly to this type of vegetation the system will be placed within a greenhouse where the plants can thrive while cleaning.  Take a look at this picture of the system in the lobby of the Port of Portland.  This is only part of the system (it continues outside) but you can see how nice it looks.

Another benefit of this system is that it saves costs.  Because you don’t have to hook up with the local sewer system you don’t have to pay that utility cost and you now have all of this water to re-use which will save you money on irrigation or whatever else you use it for.  Another cost saver is that this system doesn’t use a lot of energy due to the fact that it’s mimicking nature.

This system also offer’s something else that is very important to a lot of companies: it shows their commitment to the environment and that they’re willing to go the extra mile to lower their ecological footprint.  This is something that is overlooked but is very important to a lot of people.

Overall I think that this is a great system that provides a much needed service at a savings to the customer while helping the environment by mimicking it.  There is currently an installation being built at the new Public Utilities Commission building in San Francisco (where I live) and I can’t wait to go down and take a look.


A Different way to Treat your Wastewater
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7 thoughts on “A Different way to Treat your Wastewater

  • July 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm


    Thanks for your post on this application of the Living Machine concept. Incorporation of a Living Machine system into large buildings is a potentially promising application of this system. Putting wetland treatment systems into spaces that would otherwise have been planted and enclosed anyway is a good way to improve the economics of the Living Machine concept.

    I am a wastewater treatment engineer who lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. We have a Living Machine system at IslandWood on Bainbridge, a complex which is an “outdoor learning center designed to provide exceptional learning experiences and inspire lifelong environmental and community stewardship.” (https://islandwood.org/) Unlike your example here, the IslandWood system is enclosed by a greenhouse that was built as part of a wastewater treatment system for the residential and conference facilities. I visited this Living Machine system as part of planning for a community wastewater treatment system for a small town in King County. We concluded that a Living Machine system would be dramatically more expensive than a comparable activated sludge treatment system. Part of the reason for this is that the activated sludge system requires about one tenth the tank volume of a Living Machine system. Constructing a greenhouse over a system that is ten times larger than an activated sludge system is likewise an expense that is not needed for an activated sludge system. Many activated sludge systems are enclosed (the Ochai Treatment Works in Tokyo has a baseball stadium over it!) but even in this case, one tenth the area requires enclosure compared to a wetland system like the Living Machine.

    You may not be aware that modern biological wastewater treatment systems are really quite modest energy consumers, less than a 20 watt light bulb per capita for a full nutrient removing system. We are making strides to bring the wastewater treatment system of the future to energy neutrality with full energy and nutrient recovery; and this will be done at much less cost than would be required for a Living Machine system. Another consideration is that the Living Machine system cannot reliably remove nutrients unless the plants that grow in the wetland system are regularly harvested, which is usually not done. Also, nutrient removal varies with the season with a wetland system like the Living Machine.

    In conclusion, I would say that the Living Machine system may be best applied where its landscape features would be normally included in large, well-funded office buildings anyway. This will not make the system more cost-effective than a modern biological nutrient removing wastewater treatment system, but it may make it a good choice as part of a public relations effort for small systems.

    Best regards,

    Randal Samstag

    • July 26, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Hi Randal,

      Thanks for the comment and all the information. It’s great that you were able to install a Living Machine system at IslandWood. Looks like you are doing some great stuff up there. I agree that this system needs to be installed in the appropriate application to make it practical, such as an office building like you said. Did you see my write-up on the new San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s new headquarters? They have a Living Machine system there and it fits in very nicely with the feel of their lobby. Here’s the story if you want to check it out The SFPUC’s New Headquarters: The Greenest Building in the US?. There are some pictures at the bottom of the system, and a description of it in the written part. Thanks again for the comment.


  • October 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    ‘Living Machine’ is a wonderful manifestation of emerging and fast-developing fields of ecology and ecological enginnering.

    We have gone one step ahead, by making the ecology superfast, broadband and invisible by creating BioSanitizer Ecochips, that can clean any water or wastewater stream while it is flowing. Such on-line cleaning makes it more cost-effective and easy to operate and maintain. There are no residues or greenhouse gases created because that is against the principles of ecology. For more details, please see www,wastetohealth.com

  • January 24, 2013 at 1:50 am

    Nice post. The approach you suggested to treat the waste water can help a lot. Thanks for sharing such great information.

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