Plant should work with nature not against it

By Nelson Lebo

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Unlike most residents of Wanganui, I grew up around skunks.

I've had skunks in my rubbish. I've had skunks get into my food store while camping. Skunks had babies under my house once. And every dog I've ever owned has been skunked at some point in their lives.

But never have I felt like I am living inside of a skunk ... until now.

Whether it is opening the front door or opening the Wanganui Chronicle, I am constantly reminded of the continuing saga of the wastewater treatment facility at the heart of our malodorous melodrama. The commonly recommended remedy for a skunked dog is to wash it in tomato juice. If only our solution were as easy.

By most accounts, fixing the problem will cost ratepayers on top of what we have already paid experts to design, build and operate the facility.

In slang usage, to skunk someone means to cheat them by failing to pay. In this case, however, it appears that ratepayers may be skunked by having to pay twice because of someone's poorly done work whether that involved the design, the operation, or some protein discharge by industry.

Someone made a mistake, but I see the problem as bigger than just finding someone to blame.

Instead of pointing the finger at one of the above as others have in the pages of this paper over the past months, I'll take a novel approach to the problem by suggesting that the entire situation could have been avoided while dozens of local jobs could have been created if an eco-design perspective had been taken in the first place.

Eco-design is a large field with many slight variations, so I'll focus on the work of two of the finest eco-designers on the planet: William McDonough and Michael Braungart. In their landmark book, Cradle to Cradle, the pair lay out their philosophy of "waste equals food" by promoting the idea that the mere concept of waste can be eliminated by designing systems in which the waste of one process is the feedstock for another process. The same philosophy is held by Zero Emissions Research Initiatives (ZERI), which explains its perspective this way: "The common vision shared by the members of the ZERI family is to view waste as resource and seek solutions using nature's design principles as inspiration." (www.zeri.org).

From this perspective, protein discharges never would have entered the treatment plant as waste because they would have been used by a secondary industry making a useful product and creating jobs.

What we now face as a liability may have been made an asset that would save ratepayers money and pay wages to local residents. The process of turning a waste into a valuable product was depicted in one of the finest films of all time, Fight Club, where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) recovers fat from the bins outside a liposuction clinic to make soap that sells for a very handsome profit. Waste = Soap = Profits.

Any system can be designed to work with nature instead of against it. In most cases, the end result saves money and provides a higher quality of life for human beings. Cheaper. Healthier. Better for the environment. Yet our community now faces the exact opposite. Expensive. Unhealthy. Polluting. Having lived in New Zealand for four and a half years I cannot claim to have a worldview of a native Kiwi. But from a North American perspective, I reckon we've been skunked.

Nelson Lebo is co-founder of the ECO School with his wife, Dani. theecoschool@gmail.com 06 344 5013. They have extensively renovated an old villa at Castlecliff with green principles and sustainability in mind.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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