Slice of Life

Good things are growing at Living Technologies Inc. The Burlington business harnesses the power of nature to purify wastewater

by Caroline Crawford

Photos: Jeff Clarke

The sites of many of life’s behind-the-scenes processes don’t hold much appeal to the average person — particularly a place like a wastewater treatment facility. Just the thought of how thousands of gallons of raw sewage under treatment would smell is likely to repel even the most inquisitive folks. So how can it be that a demonstration wastewater treatment facility in South Burlington is not only a popular place to visit, but has even served as a gala wine and cheese party locale?

The answer is that the Living Machine system at work in South Burlington looks and smells a lot more like an indoor botanical garden than a standard sewage system. Living Technologies Inc. (LTI), with corporate headquarters at the Maltex Building in Burlington, has engineered a wastewater treatment process that uses natural systems, rather than chemicals, to treat sewage. Open tanks of water are cleaned by systems of carbon-eating bacteria, rapidly growing plants, and snails and fish that could just as well be straight out of Disney World’s EPCOT Center as it could be northern Vermont.

Ramin Abrishamian

Ramin Abrishamian became CEO of Living Technologies Inc. in Burlington in August. The MIT-trained chemical engineer hopes to beef up marketing of the company’s natural waste treatment process to food and beverage manufacturers.

“We treat wastewater in a way that makes it look pretty,” says Ramin Abrishamian, CEO of Living Technologies, which was incorporated in 1993. “It’s a natural way of treating sewage and industrial waste. Treating wastewater in a biological vs. chemical way has been taking place ever since there were plants and organic materials. We’re using this natural system in a commercial application.”

Abrishamian is a relatively new arrival at LTI. An MIT-trained chemical engineer, this Iranian native moved from the Boston area to Burlington in late August to assume the position of CEO. “Most recently I was the CEO of a biotech firm, but I have been down just about every road imaginable in my field. I’ve been the marketing manager, technologies developer, manager, financier — I’ve tried all different roles. My specialty is commercializing technologies and working with small companies to put together the various skill sets needed to make the company grow. So this opportunity was just right for me.”

He does admit this is a very different approach to treating wastewater than he’s been involved with in the past as a program manager for the clean-up of a Superfund site in Louisiana and as technical adviser for clean-up sites in Italy. “I’ve been involved in the business for a long time — but more on the hard and technical side of treating hazardous and toxic waste. Working with plants is certainly more enjoyable.”

According to Abrishamian, the company hasn’t been marketed at all, so his initial marketing plans are quite simple: “Just do it.” The company’s sales — more than 25 systems worldwide, including six countries and 10 states — has come from word of mouth and public relations rather than any overt sales efforts. He is hiring a marketing manager, and is finding the company’s location to be a hindrance as well as a help in this job search.

“From a certain business point of view, our location is a limiting factor for company growth, because in northern Vermont there is a shortage of the type of skilled workers we need, but LTI has become very much a part of the Vermont scene. We get tremendous support from our congressional representative and from the state and local governments, and we would not get that in a larger state. Our workers (11 full-time, two part-time and three contractors) are committed Vermonters. We have developed a good relationship with the University of Vermont. And there’s talk about Vermont becoming an ecological mecca, a place where ecological design and engineering will be practiced and developed. The population is conscious of environmental issues, so we feel at home here.”

Lynne Stuart, LTI’s vice president of engineering and the company’s longest-serving employee, agrees. “It’s both a challenge and a benefit being in Vermont. People don’t know where we are, but Vermont is well known as an environmental state. When they hear that we’re an environmental firm that comes from Vermont, it has cachet.”

Stuart’s hopes for the company are high. “I want us to be the brand name to think of in wastewater treatment. I’d like to see our technologies used more broadly, for hazardous water remediation, and I think they will be, because our system is fairly simple to operate, considering the high quality of water it produces.”

LTI’s Living Machine, as its water treatment system is called, is based on the same natural science as estuaries — nature’s own water filtration system. It comprises of a series of tanks, each about 14 feet deep with a slightly different ecosystem. Wastewater enters the facility and flows into the first tank. The sewage is so toxic at this point that plants can’t live, so the tank is covered with an 18-inch layer of soil and grasses. The noxious gases from the raw sewage travel up through the soil, which breaks down the gases into odorless carbon dioxide and oxygen.

As the sewage travels into the next tank, its strength has been lessened, and plants can grown in it. Oxygen, which is bubbled into the tanks, encourages friendly bacteria growth on plant roots. The bacteria eat the carbon and other elements in the wastewater; snails clean the plant roots; fish keep the insect population down. The only waste created is plants, which are pruned as they grow and are composted; and organics that settle to the bottom of the tanks and form a sludge, which is also composted. The water becomes successively cleaner during its one-to three-day journey through the tanks, and has been so well cleaned by nature at the end of this process that it merely needs to be chlorinated to remove pathogens, and to have phosphorous removed (through a chemical process).

Living Machine

The company has sold more than 25 Living Machines in six countries and 10 states. Hot, dry climates are ideal for the process, because they eliminate the need of building greenhouses, which colder climates require to encourage bacteria growth.

Creating a commercial application for this process was the inspiration of Dr. John Todd, a biologist and visiting professor at UVM who has been recognized internationally for his environmental work. “It is our hope that by studying human waste recycling in a beautiful, ecologically diverse and dynamic Living Machine ... (humans) will begin to comprehend the meaning of natural systems in their lives. Equally important, it may allow them to engage with the natural world in sustaining the communities of tomorrow,” he has said.

The Living Machines were transformed from Todd’s innovation into a Vermont business in the late 1980s. Gardener’s Supply Co. in Burlington was looking for ways to expand the market for its glazing panels and it discovered the opportunities available with Todd’s constructed ecosystem designs. Gardener’s Supply started a division called Advanced Greenhouse Systems, which set out to build a new generation of ecological wastewater treatment systems using more sun, flora and fauna, and less purchased energy and chemicals. “It felt good to us as a gardening company essentially to be promoting water gardening in greenhouses as a solution to a growing global problem — cleaning up polluted waters,” says Will Raap, president and founder of Gardener’s Supply. “But we also discovered Gardener’s Supply Co.’s strength is as a retailer and manufacturer of gardening solutions, not an international engineering and construction business!” After several years and a significant amount of capital investment, Gardener’s Supply spun off LTI into a separate corporation in 1993. The company continues to be a shareholder in LTI.

As we move into the 21st century, we all need to be developing ways to manage waste using ecological systems. Supporting projects like the Living Machine is consistent with a progressive and forward-thinking economic development strategy,” says Charles Hafter, South Burlington’s city manager.

LTI’s demonstration project in South Burlington, across from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, treats 80,000 rerouted gallons of the city’s 200,000-gallon daily wastewater output. “Having the Living Machine has been a boon for us,” says Hafter. “We get visitors from outside of the city, and the state. I’ve had calls from wealthy communities in the Midwest wanting to know about our experiences with the system.”

The site is owned by the Massachusetts Institute for Excellence in Marine and Polymer Sciences, and is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. The city has the right to buy the plant for a dollar at the end of 1999 and lease it back to Living Technologies to continue to operate, and to use as a teaching facility for local high school and college students.

Living Technologies has had great success setting up systems all over the world, including plants for M&M Mars in Brazil and Australia, and for Ethel M Chocolates in Henderson, Nev. Living Machines will work in any climate, although a hot, dry area such as Nevada eliminates the necessity — and the expense — of building a greenhouse, which colder climates such as Vermont require to keep the water warm enough to encourage bacteria growth. “Our systems are appropriate for anybody who generates wastewater, in just about any climate,” says Abrishamian, “although our primary target is food and beverage manufacturing. Their waste, which is so high in organic materials, is best suited for our technology. Small municipalities that don’t already have a wastewater treatment facility are also ideally suited for our systems.”

Rob von Rohr

Living Technologies’ Living Machine consists of open tanks of water filled with carbon-eating bacteria, plants, snails and fish. “We treat wastewater in a way that makes it look pretty,” says Ramin Abrishamian. Pictured: project engineer Rob von Rohr.

As LTI prepares to begin to truly market its systems, its presence continues to expand close to home. The Vermont Welcome Center on Interstate 91 at the Massachusetts border hosts a Living Machine, and Smuggler’s Notch Resort is in the permitting stage of building one.

Abrishamian believes choosing a Living Machine is an excellent way to generate good public relations for a resort or business. “If you go with conventional technology, it has to be hid. Our system is one you can show off. You can design your facility around it. People like being around Living Machines. In fact, during the cocktail party we had for our operators at our South Burlington site, we had to keep reminding our guests not to put their hands in the water!” says Abrishamian.

Other sites around the globe include the Sonora Mountain Brewery in California, the National Audubon Society in Florida and The Body Shop factory in Ontario, Canada. LTI has received inquiries recently from the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

“Our systems are very logical — but it is so new,” says Abrishamian. “People wonder whether it can really be true. And of course it is true. We’re just using the same systems that nature put in place. We’ve got plants working — for us.”

Caroline Crawford is the former associate editor of Eating Well magazine. She is a writer and editor living in Burlington.