BioCycle February 2011, Vol. 52, No. 2, p. 4
Serendipity. The dictionary defines it as “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” That is exactly what happened as I was writing this editorial about our February cover story, which launches the BioCycle Community Sustainability Series. I opened the web browser on my laptop about 6 a.m., which automatically launches The New York Times homepage. And amid the headlines about the turmoil in Egypt and our need to severely slash the federal budget, was this gem: “City Is Looking at Sewage Treatment as a Source of Energy.”
The article was reporting on New York City changing its view of its waste-water treatment plants to see them as energy production machines, not just equipment to treat sewage. “New York is beginning to look at its waste as an untapped resource,” writes Mireya Navarro. “Heating fuel can be extracted from sludge and butanol, an alternative fuel to gasoline, from the algae generated by wastewater. Sewage treatment plants could sell methane gas to provide power to homes.”
Numerous articles in BioCycle have profiled wastewater treatment plants as energy production plants. So that is not the serendipity part. But here is what is: “There is nothing here that’s pie in the sky,” Caswell F. Holloway, the city’s commissioner of environmental protection, told the Times. “While we’re early in the process, it’s real.”
Very real. The BioCycle community – our readers, our advertisers, our conference attendees and exhibitors – have labored in the trenches for decades developing many of the technologies, tools and knowledge that are available to New York City today to tap its wastes as resources. And how to put these tools to use to make communities sustainable is the cornerstone of our new article series, which launches this month with a profile of the city of Philadelphia. In 2008, newly elected Mayor Michael Nutter made a long-term commitment (a critical component of sustainability) to implement the city’s GreenWorks plan that includes “surface level greening” to manage storm water, stepping up municipal recycling both with investment and revenue-sharing, generating energy at the wastewater treatment plants, providing access to fresh produce in all neighborhoods and much more.
Mayor Nutter also adopted a style of governing that is another critical component of sustainability. He created a Deputy Mayor structure that integrates multiple city services. For example, Rina Cutler is Deputy Mayor of Transportation and Utilities, which includes the agencies responsible for storm water and wastewater management, recycling and composting, the airport and more. When the mayor offered her the position, Cutler told BioCycle, “I found combining both [transportation and utilities] to be unusual and interesting. When I questioned why he would put those together, his answer was pretty clear: ‘It’s all infrastructure.’ We had a long discussion about how one integrates all pieces of that particular puzzle.”
And this brings me to the other bit of serendipity in The New York Times article, a quote by Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council: “It’s taking existing infrastructure and outfitting it to solve other city problems.” That statement truly embodies community sustainability – establishing “resource trading” between critical public services that sustain a community’s ability to support its population.
This is a work in progress. As Commissioner Holloway notes, there is nothing pie in the sky here. We are very excited to launch the BioCycle Community Sustainability Series and welcome suggestions for communities to feature.