Excerpt from Personal Log:
Date: 17 May 2152
Location: To be confirmed
Demographics: 34, Female, South African
Occupation: Environmental Engineer
It’s Day Two of my arrival. I’m tired from yesterday’s stint of being a lab rat. I know yesterday’s journal entry noted that the journey through the portal felt seamless and that the only discomfort was the bright lights, tests, prods, and questions -- but this morning my body felt pummeled.
I still do not know where I am. It seems as if this time is a little more paranoid than we had expected. Furthermore, the two-year error in our estimation of my arrival heightened that sentiment.
Side note: This error vexes me as well – we need to review our prediction model – what if the error margin significantly increases?
Yesterday’s focus was on them getting answers -- today marks a role reversal. Their version of our United Nations has stipulated that I be briefed by a group that is well represented globally – especially with sensitive social, political and geographical topics. To allow them time to prepare, we will meet tomorrow. Today, I get to review the developments made in my specialization over the last 129 years.
Side note: By now, I gather that my portal opened in an area named Vara. I don’t recognize any of the names of places they use – it seems as if sea level rise, climatic events and scarcity have been instrumental in reshaping the very concept of countries. This will be clarified at the formal briefing tomorrow.
My hosts were confused when I explained that I was an environmental engineer specializing in wastewater. It seems that in a world where scarcity is an ongoing challenge, the idea of linking the words “waste” and “water” is absurd. This morning started off with introductions with the Department of Resource Recovery – interestingly, they have combined the handling of what we term, wastewater and solid waste. Most of the operational work is privatized, so this department is primarily a regulatory body: setting policies, monitoring compliance, and overseeing penalties.
An unanswered question for us in the 2020s is whether we opt for centralized or decentralized treatment options. We benefit from economies of scale with centralized systems; with decentralized systems, we have smaller plants and reticulation networks. But in 2152, there is a clear directive: they’ve opted for decentralized solutions so they can optimize the reuse potential.
My day tour started with visiting various households. Suburbs all have microgrid reticulation networks – there are the typical water and sewer lines, but there also is a return non-drinking water (they call it green-water here) line. Organic waste for composting, and recyclables (glass, electronics, metal, etc.) are collected separately by an underground autonomous tram every day. Recyclables are transported to a common Sorter (similar to our Material Recovery Centres), where auctions for recovered materials are held.
The organic waste is combined with food waste from commercial and foodprocessing facilities and transported to what my hosts have been affectionately calling Food Factories – I am to visit one after lunch.
On the bathroom front, I was dismayed to see, that like the building that housed my portal, no households used toilet paper.
Using paper for insignificant tasks is a faux pas here – they do not even provide paper recycling bins. Instead, they have optimized what many of our current Muslim brethren use to clean after using the toilet, called an istinja hose.
I was surprised to see that our current greywater reuse and rainwater harvesting systems were not carried through into the future – the green-water lines have replaced these technologies in providing a decent enough water quality to flush toilets, clean, wash cars, irrigate, etc. Sewer pipes (black and greywater) transport sewage to the Food Factories. Rain is collected from all hard surfaces and is then channeled through lush swales and small attenuation ponds creating a system of landscaped rain garden ecosystems of indigenous plants. The focus is natural ecosystem replenishment.
The heat is a bit more than I’m used to – I think the others may be acclimatized. We’re breaking for lunch, and I will hopefully be able to rest before I get to see what a Food Factory is.
Side note: People are letting bits of information slip – especially at dinner when there is mixi involved. Mixi is a synthetically produced wine. It seems as if water scarcity and reduced land dampened the operations of grape vineyards, making it more sustainable to be creative with dosing juice with ethanol and flavorings. I digress from my intended side note.
The misplaced information was that Vara seems to be where Valencia was. This surprised me. The Spanish in my time are proud of their language and heritage – but I would never have known I’m currently in old-Spain, as everyone speaks English with no discernible accent. It seems as if the theory of globalization not furthering a uniform language was incorrect. After the slip, I was reminded that I need to wait until tomorrow to know about the events that led up to the changing of the social and political landscape globally as it has too many diplomatic implications.
Back to my Food Factory tour. I’m in awe.
No significant changes have been made in the last hundred years – it’s just been rearranged using a different mindset: waste is treated like gold. The sewer pipes enter privately operated factories. Physical debris, including grit, is separated from the sewage, washed and sundried using solar reflective mirrors. Dried debris is crushed, and both grit and debris are added to other waste streams at the local Sorter, which happens to be part of the Food Factory yard, for auctioning off as construction materials.
Raw solids are settled out of the sewage in the next step and sent to thermophilic digesters to create biogas. The collected organic waste from households, shops and restaurants also is added to the solids to improve the calorific value and biogas yield. The spent digested sludge is later mixed in with garden and park waste, carted in by the underground tram system, and then undergoes solar composting. And this is where the food part of Food Factory comes in – the entire establishment is geared towards applying circular economy principles, automation and process optimization to the growing and preparing of food.
For example, the sludge is transformed into compost for the crops planted around the factory. The sewage (now devoid of solids) undergoes natural biological treatment before undergoing disinfection using ultraviolet light - exactly the way we do now. Except for the effort made to reuse at every point in the process. The spent biological matter (including algae populations) used to treat the sewage is collected, treated, and dehydrated in solar dryers.
Its filamentous structure provides amazing growth mats for building facades. To combat the rising temperatures, I noticed that many of the buildings we drove passed were covered in facades that are planted with thick creeper plants to reduce the urban heat island effect. These mats allow for a light, but secure, structure to which the plants adhere.
The disinfected treated water is filtered through a constructed wetland for tertiary treatment, creating a natural ecosystem to encourage local biodiversity. The filtered water is then split in three ways. One stream continues into a wetland space for crops that grow in marshy conditions.
The second stream goes into aquaculture ponds that house sustainably bred freshwater fish for consumption. The water leaving the fishponds is now enriched with nutrients and is then diverted for the fertilised irrigation of other crops. The third stream goes back into the factory to be treated to the drinking water and green water requirements and is pressurised back into the reticulation networks for consumption.
Besides the treatment of solid waste and sewage, the factory consists of fish and high-density (irrigated and fertilized) crop farming. The external crops are hardy, however, covered grow sheds are used for the more delicate fruit and vegetables. Irrigation equipment and grow lights are automatically controlled using sensors – this is essentially a farming factory. Significant factory space is allocated for food processing and distribution. In our time, 40% of food is wasted between farm and table. They seemed to have solved this by planting and processing in the same space
The biogas from the digestors is fed through quad-generators which produce heat (required to run the digestors), power (for the factory and surrounding operations), refrigeration (to store produce) and carbon dioxide (used in food processing).
The underground tram system delivers food directly to consumers who order online, reducing packaging requirements and waste generation. There are typically 5 – 10 Food Factories in the proximity of a household. Performance is monitored, and every 10 years, the contract is retendered to ensure that no monopolies can drive prices too high.
I’m looking forward to learning more about this time tomorrow – but with just what I saw today, I have hope for our future. Even with high populations, harsh climatic events, and reduced area and resources, there is still sufficient, nutritious food available in 2152. We think of a high technology future, and yet our future generations have simply rearranged our technology into systems that feed into each other. They don’t waste – they adapt and transform.
Samista Jugwanth is a professionally registered Engineer and Technical Director at Zutari, one of largest African based engineering and advisory consultancies. She is also an External Examiner and Industry Advisory Board Member for the Civil Engineering school at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Having been trained in both design-led thinking and strategic foresight methodologies, Samista has been actively merging these toolsets into traditional engineering design to ensure that solutions offered are humancentred and inclusive of environmental, social, and economic aspects.