Business & Tech

Talking points

Waste not, want not

A view of Deer Island in 2000.

Evan Richman/Globe Staff

A view of Deer Island in 2000.

To some, the $4 billion Deer Island sewage treatment plant that opened 17 years ago is an engineering marvel.

But to Bob Zimmerman, Deer Island is already outdated. Zimmerman’s group, the Charles River Watershed Association, is proposing an alternative: smaller, decentralized treatment plants that double as generators of electricity and heat for the areas around them.

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The watershed group has been working on this idea for several years. But Zimmerman’s dream project is picking up momentum now. The group just packed its research into a 75-page book, focusing on concepts for Boston’s Mission Hill and South Boston neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the town of Littleton is putting Zimmerman’s idea to work, as officials there just set aside more than $450,000 to start designing one of these “smart sewer” projects.

Zimmerman calls them CWERCs, or Community Water and Energy Resource Centers, and they’re definitely quirky. In goes toilet waste and discarded food. Out comes electricity (from methane gas), thermal energy, reclaimed water, fertilizer. Cheaper to run. Better for the environment.

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Sounds intriguing. But we probably won’t say goodbye to Deer Island in our lifetimes. Fred Laskey, head of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, says the massive seaside plant was built to stand for decades.

Laskey says he follows Zimmerman’s work closely and sees lessons to be learned. Laskey can envision how several of these creative projects can eventually augment the MWRA’s massive sewer network. With developers carving up what little real estate is still available here, creativity will become increasingly important.

Jon Chesto is a Globe reporter. Reach him at jon.chesto@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @jonchesto. Sign up for Talking Points here.
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