Dr Keith Bolton separating the bast fibre from the hurd fibre of an industrial hemp crop.
Dr Keith Bolton separating the bast fibre from the hurd fibre of an industrial hemp crop.

Effluence to affluence

Every time you flush the toilet, do you think about what happens to your bodily waste once it leaves the bowl? Ecological engineer Dr Keith Bolton does. With his driving philosophy ‘there’s no such thing as waste’, he has devoted his career to developing natural ways of treating sewage and using effluent for the benefit of communities.

Rather than creating environmental problems by pumping effluent into rivers and oceans, Dr Bolton believes wastewater should be utilised as a resource. The projects he has been involved with have taken him from growing the first fields of industrial hemp on the North Coast through to creating sustainable solutions to sewage problems in remote Aboriginal communities.

Through his company Ecotechnology Australia, Dr Bolton and his Lismore-based Ecoteam have pioneered the design of constructed wetland ecosystems to treat sewage. If we think of wetlands as being the kidneys of the land, then the process of constructing a wetland is like performing a kidney transplant.

“In nature, wetlands are the mechanisms that purify the water as it travels from land into water courses,” Dr Bolton said. “They essentially serve the same function that our kidneys do in our bodies by purifying the water cycle.”

While using wetlands to manage wastewater is not new technology, Dr Bolton’s PhD research was the first of its kind in Australia to look at constructing wetlands using Melaleucas, a tree species which is tolerant of water-logging. These trees have ‘sticky root systems’ which attract faecal coliforms and effectively filter the water.

Dr Bolton’s innovations were sought out by the Byron Shire Council in 2000 after the Shire’s sewage system had reached capacity. His ecological approach of using wetlands rather than pipes to the ocean was welcomed by the community and led to the successful construction of the 24-hectare Byron Effluent Reuse Wetland.

“We draw a lot of our inspiration from natural cycles,” Dr Bolton said. “In nature there is no such thing as waste – the end product of one thing is just part of a process of another. Community is part of the natural cycle as well. I always write Community with a capital C to show respect to its importance.”

With a love of travel and a secondary business behind him of importing hemp products such as hemp seed oil, it was natural that Dr Bolton’s next project should involve research into growing and irrigating hemp with effluent.

“Through my business Decision Earth, I was the largest supplier of hemp products in Australia,” Dr Bolton said. “I could see there was a niche market for hemp products and I decided I’d like to grow it here. Hemp is a low impact, easy to grow crop that fits with my philosophy of sustainability.”

In partnership with Byron Shire Council and Southern Cross University, in 2001 Dr Bolton embarked on the first Australian trial of growing industrial hemp under special licence through NSW Health under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act.

“Half a million litres of poorly treated effluent were being released into the local creek at Bangalow causing ecological damage,” Dr Bolton said. “I suggested that the alternative was a land application of effluent where we grow and irrigate crops with it.”

Dr Bolton then trialled crops of hemp, bamboo and kenaf on the land. While hemp produced the most in terms of biomass production, today bamboo is grown there as the main ‘mop crop’ because it grows all year round.

It was the combination of hemp and waste water which brought the people from the Aboriginal community of Malabugilmah near Tenterfield to Dr Bolton’s door about four years ago. They had heard about his successful hemp growing trials and they hoped he could help them with their own sewage problems.

“I went and looked at their community and saw raw sewage flowing into the creek,” Dr Bolton said. “The pumps which had been previously installed were unserviced, old and failing and dumping untreated sewage into the Clarence River.”

While he was there, Dr Bolton saw children with ulcers on their legs from swimming in the local water hole, which was contaminated with untreated sewage. The community’s drinking water supplies were also being taken out of that catchment and people had gastro-intestinal illnesses from the water.

“I realised more than sewage was the issue,” Dr Bolton said. “The people were proactively looking for opportunities so I had a brainstorming session with the whole community and asked them ‘what does your community need?’. There was high unemployment and no sport and recreation facilities but everyone was willing to work.”

Turning the community’s problems into strengths, Dr Bolton saw the sewage as resource water which offered a useful opportunity to create employment and build sporting facilities for the community. With the help of the community, the Ecoteam then built a football field and constructed a wetland system on community land.

“We implemented state-of-the-art draining technologies, using a three stage stormwater wetland system which included irrigation of the new football field with the treated water,” Dr Bolton said. “Rather than implement inappropriate technology, the new system at Malabugilmah used gravity to treat the water so we wouldn’t need pumps. The creek is now protected as the water is irrigated on the land.”

Having travelled the world extensively, Dr Bolton had seen what can happen when inappropriate infrastructure is created in communities without proper consultation or ongoing servicing and training.

“In a South East Asian hill tribe, there was a company who built a concrete and chemical sewage treatment plant which worked for six months until the pumps broke down,” Dr Bolton said. “Three years later raw sewage was discharging into the waterways. The multi-million dollar pump was useless because the tribe couldn’t afford to buy petrol to run it.

“At Malabugilmah, maintaining pipes and pumps is just as important as installing the infrastructure in the first place. The community owns the project and we provide them with a high level of regular, on-ground support.”

Unlike other projects in Australian Aboriginal communities which involve infrastructure planning, Dr Bolton consulted closely with the community and directly involved them in the process of establishing the infrastructure, including staffing the project steering committee with community members. Fourteen community members were given training and are now employed to maintain the infrastructure and services required by the community.

Today, the Ecoteam is employed to work with another two Aboriginal communities situated between Tabulum and Grafton. Community members learn and share skills with each other and the employed workers are trained in how to maintain the other communities’ infrastructure.

Dr Bolton said that while it was initially hard to get support from the NSW Office of Water to run the project at Malabugilmah, the results have so impressed the NSW Government that it is using Ecoteam’s community approach as a model for applying to other remote Aboriginal communities across NSW.

“Our strength is in putting a personal face on business,” Dr Bolton said. “We maintain our ethics regarding community empowerment, proper consultation and using appropriate technologies which are suitable for the community in the long term. This requires you to become a part of the community so you can think like them and make decisions that are most suitable. If you come in with a business model, very often those intangible resources are not fully drawn upon.”

For Dr Bolton, experiencing the true essence of community spirit was one of the best outcomes of his work with the Malabugilmah community.

“You are brother or sister if you are part of the community,” Dr Bolton said. “The community are respectful of titles and I’m a doctor so I became Brother Doc.

“The first week I started working on grounds we were based in a building at the bottom of the community,” Dr Bolton said. “Mervyn came down and told me there was a ghost living there and it wasn’t safe for me during winter because that’s when she comes out. He strongly encouraged me to come up to his place as there was a pot of stew on the stove and for the next six months I lived with him.

“At Malabugilmah, there isn’t a lot of financial wealth, but there is community ownership. People share things at a fundamental level. I can walk into anyone’s house and make a cup of coffee and not be an outsider. Occasionally when I’ve gone there, I’ve forgotten to bring food and within five minutes of arriving the whole community knew I had no food and I would be invited up for kangaroo stew. It made me appreciate community a lot more and understand that wealth is not just about material possessions but about your connection to a community.”

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