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Living Machines

Updated on August 21, 2009
A living machine in action at the Emmen Zoo, Holland. This one treats 260,000 gallons of wastewater a day. Photo by Jean-Luc Toilet.
A living machine in action at the Emmen Zoo, Holland. This one treats 260,000 gallons of wastewater a day. Photo by Jean-Luc Toilet.

The bathroom of the future may resemble a greenhouse more than a lavatory. As cities around the world struggle with wastewater management problems, there is growing interest in a new-old form of wastewater management called living machines. ("Living Machine" is actually a trademarked term owned by Living Machines, Inc., but much like Kleenex and Xerox, the term may already be passing into wider use.)

Living machines are a type of constructed wetland that duplicate the natural water purification systems of wild wetlands. They use aquatic plants, fish, clams, algae, and other organisms to treat sewage and wastewater.

Ecological Benefits of Living Machines

Conventional sewage treatment requires high levels of chemical inputs, including environmentally harmful chemicals such as chlorine. It often produces large amounts of sludge, which may be toxic due to inadequately sequestered heavy metals and other elements, and which must be disposed of. Improper disposal of toxic sludge has been documented on numerous occasions in the United States, including spreading it on agricultural fields, dumping it in oceans and waterways or on public lands, and even abandoning it in urban alleyways.

Living machines do not require chemical inputs, and produce much less sludge due to their conversion of water, organic matter, and nutrients into biomass. Living machines also provide improved sequestration of most heavy metals and better filtering of microscopic colloidal materials and suspended particles than conventional water treatment methods. Living machines are capable of treating water to tertiary treatment standards, and often even to potability, though this depends on the exact makeup and toxicity of the influent.

Unlike conventional treatment plants, living machines can also provide outside financial benefits through aquaculture in tanks where the later stages of treatment are performed. The Chinese have used "night soil" as fertilizer for their rice paddies for millennia, although their system is not intensive enough to prevent possible disease or parasite contamination and is better used as an example than a model

Disadvantages of Living Machines

Living machines must be designed carefully for the general makeup and quantity of influent in order to be most effective. Inadequately designed systems may be labor and management intensive, and may not meet treatment standards.

Living machines have not been tried on a truly municipal scale and their effectiveness on that scale is uncertain. With current designs, they are best suited for corporate use or use by small communities. Although residential living machines exist, the current technology requires more space (about the area of a two car garage for an average three bedroom home) and more money (about 2.5 times the cost of a conventional sewage system) than many homeowners are willing to invest. As the designs improve, however, residential living machines are expected to become increasingly common.

Another view of the Emmen Zoo living machine. Source:
Another view of the Emmen Zoo living machine. Source:

Living Machines in Action

One of the best known living machines is the solar aquatic system built by Jim Davis for the rural Indiana headquarters of Paws, Inc., the corporation that oversees the Garfield comic strip. The Paws, Inc. system treats 8,500 gallons per week.

New England Biolabs in Ipswich, MA is home to another, which treats 27,500 gallons per day, according to a case study (PDF) about the system.

The Noorder Dierenpark (Emmen Zoo) in the Netherlands cleans 260,000 gallons of wastewater every day in its living machine, and produces potable water on the other end.

Information about many other living machine projects can be found at Worrell Water Technologies.


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    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Cygnet Brown 

      6 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

      I'm still working on getting moved back out to the country. The bathroom is further down the list.

    • LongTimeMother profile image


      6 years ago from Australia

      Thank you , cygnetbrown. I'm glad I'm not the only one. :)

      Now, if I can just figure out a way to get you the power to vote on house renovation suggestions within our family, I think I could turn this bathroom into a reality. lol.

    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Cygnet Brown 

      6 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

      I agree with LongTimeMother too! Not only would the bathroom's water be purified, but the plants would help cleanse the air in the house as well. It is also aesthetically pleasing having plants in the house. Its as though we know we belong surrounded by plants.

    • LongTimeMother profile image


      6 years ago from Australia

      lol. We live off the grid and divert all our grey water to the roots of fruit trees etc.

      I am currently trying to convince my husband that a really good idea for a bathroom would be to have an earth floor, lots of windows for sunshine, and plants actually growing in hanging baskets and perhaps even in the ground/floor. That way we wouldn't care if the shower leaks!

      I'm not sure he's going to agree, but I actually quite like the idea of turning the bathroom into a greenhouse. :)

    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Cygnet Brown 

      6 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

      It is interesting that this idea has come full circle. This idea started back in 1970 with the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts. They had a waste water system that was proven to effectively treat all water using plants to filter the water. Sadly, the powers that existed at the time did not have a clear vision and decided to go with a chemical based system instead.

    • profile image

      Jean-Luc Toilet 

      10 years ago

      Oh what's in a name...

      Small scale domestic wastewater treatment doesn't require much space. My own system cleans greywater for re-use in the home and is about 3ft x 8 ft.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 

      10 years ago from San Francisco

      Photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Toilet?!

      GREAT hub, Kerry!

    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from USA

      Thanks for your comment, Netters!

      hot dorkage, the world would be a much prettier place if we did have a field for every apartment building! However, they do become more cost and space efficient the more water they need to treat. I don't have exact figures, but I suspect a living machine the size of a good-sized field could actually take care of quite a few apartment buildings! As you can see with the 2nd picture of the Emmen Zoo, they can also be arranged in semi-vertical layers to increase space efficiency.

    • hot dorkage profile image

      hot dorkage 

      11 years ago from Oregon, USA

      Don't these require acreage? You would have to have a field for every apartment building. Maybe us people should just figure out how to not poop soo much.

    • Netters profile image


      11 years ago from Land of Enchantment - NM

      Nothing would surprise me in the future. Great article.


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