Saturday, May 21, 2011

Flotsam by Another Name

In this case, "sewage."

We don't often think much about where our waste goes. It's an inescapable part of life. And really, it's always just gone "away," right? But really, there is no "away." Sewage goes into our waterways, and greater populations mean far more of the stuff to deal with. Poor stewardship in one place can cause harm far downstream.

We're starting to learn this. Most people now get that the Ganges provides dangerously polluted drinking water to millions, or that farm/field waste pouring into major rivers worsens oceanic dead zones. But stewardship isn't just the purview of cities & nations & factory farms. How individuals and local businesses handle their waste can impact the environment as well. Which is why the Twice Brewed Inn in rural Northumberland, UK is a nice ray of light.
Downtown Twice Brewed, Tynedale, Northumberland, UK
The "Twicey" sits in the majestic central region of Hadrian's Wall -- the ancient Roman border wall built at the far northwest of the empire 1900 years ago. Hikers, wall-walkers, tourists, and archaeology volunteers from nearby Vindolanda call on the Twice Brewed for a clean bed, a hearty breakfast/dinner, good ale, and a lot of laughter. It's by far the busiest place in central Wall Country.

It also generates the most sewage in the area. For decades that sewage was treated by an aging, underpowered septic system out back. A tank collected solid waste, the liquid flowing into a stony "leach field" underground, where it percolated through the soil. Polluted leachate seeped into a small stream nearby, flowing from there into Brackies Burn, then Chinely Burn, and finally the river South Tyne, eventually emptying into the North Sea 40 miles away.

When it finally came time to redo the system, pub owner Brian Keen wanted to do things better. So instead of another tank and leach field, he installed a revolutionary new system. And by "revolutionary new" I mean "millennia old." The system still starts with a tank for solid waste. But then, the liquid is run through several steps to super-clean it before it re-enters the stream:
Aerator with rocks for sifting liquid to...
Two wetland pools (each the size of a shipping
container) stocked with local marsh grass to...
Piping down to streambed in valley
The aerator separates out the last of the solids and gets oxygen into the liquid. It's then piped by gravity to the two consecutive wetland pools. The pools act like a sponge and slow down the water flow along its course. The marsh grasses pull out a small percent of waste, and natural bacterial action takes care of the rest. By the end, what flows out of the last piping into the stream is clean, drinkable water! Instead of waste left to percolate & die deep underground over months or years, oxygen & bacteria attack it right away. Nature's recycling.

The only scent comes from the aerator. (It's not vile, and rarely reaches beyond the immediate vicinity.) The system has one moving part -- the aerator has a catch basin that tips out the liquid evenly among the aerator rocks when it gets filled. The two wetland pools can have their water level raised or lowered if needed -- though they self-regulate amazingly well. It's all so simple. And the cost was half a traditional setup.

So now, a pub/inn that can sleep dozens of people each night and serve over a hundred with drinks & dinner is also among the cleanest, best stewards of the area's waterways. (It's also a proud member of Britain's Green Tourism board, and uses a lot of innovation to conserve without sacrificing convenience.)

Generally the Flotsam Diaries is about... well... non-organic waste & pollution. But it's all part of the same story. And it's great to see folks doing their part to make the world a bit cleaner for all of us.

Note: Neither I nor the Flotsam Diaries received any promotional consideration for the above. It just seemed like a good idea. Brian & Pauline have been very kind to this traveler for many years now, and I'm thrilled to get a chance to repay the favor in a small way.

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