“Take a deep breath,” urges Wayne Cowlishaw. I do, several times, while we watch contented mallards swim in the bubbling pond. The traffic on suburban I-290 buzzes in the distance as I inhale. Cowlishaw waits, but I can’t smell a thing.

That I can’t smell a thing is surprising, because the pond we’re looking at receives everything that is flushed, poured, and drained from a nearby 12-story hotel and 11 office buildings. It is “cell #1” in the sewage-treatment system for the Hamilton Lakes development in Itasca, six miles west of O’Hare. Not only does it smell OK, its end product is nutrient-rich water, which is used to irrigate 70 acres of the development’s enormous lawns and golf range; from there it trickles down to replenish the underground water supply that feeds the wells that pump the water that runs from the faucets in the hotel.

If that sounds like a circle, you’re getting the idea. Cowlishaw is vice president of Sheaffer and Roland, a Wheaton-based engineering firm that specializes in the reuse of waste. They designed this system, and the firm’s president, John (“Jack”) Sheaffer, has been promoting the concept for decades: “Manage and use, rather than treat and dispose.” In reality, he notes, we can’t dispose anyhow. Flush Chicago’s sewage down the reversed Chicago River and it pops up in Peoria or Saint Louis or New Orleans; bury toxic chemicals in a landfill and sooner or later they’ll leak into someone’s backyard. “Everything,” Sheaffer writes, “must be someplace”–so start thinking of it not as waste but as a resource.

Although Sheaffer’s most visionary engineering monuments are in the suburbs–Hamilton Lakes in Itasca and “Mount Trashmore” (Mount Hoy) near Warrenville–his thoughts have never been far from the urban hub. In June the Chicago Economic Development Commission joined his list of clients. The EDC hopes to develop a city industrial park using a Sheaffer design that employs such unlikely resources as building rubble and deep holes in the ground.

“That’s the kind of thing he’s always doing,” says Bill Eyring, who used to work with Sheaffer, “taking garbage and using it as an economic development tool. When he starts thinking of things, there’s no limit. In fact, even once you’ve settled on something, he’ll come in with something even more global.”

“He puts a great deal of himself into these projects,” says one former client. “And he won’t run away from something controversial if he thinks what he’s proposing is right.”

If Hamilton Lakes were just one more variation on the standard sewage-treatment plant, it would interest only a handful of sanitary engineers. To Sheaffer, it is a trumpet calling the country to a fundamental change of philosophy, from “linear” to “circular” ways of thinking about water. Linear people see water as something that comes to us, is used, and then is sent away (more or less treated) never to return. In this view, we can “dispose” of wastewater by first treating it and then dumping it into an existing body of water to be diluted. It is this view that Jack Sheaffer rejects–so violently that he contends Chicago made a big mistake in reversing the Chicago River 100 years ago.

Circular-system proponents, Sheaffer told the Midwest Economic Summit last March, “advocated obeying nature’s inviolable law of return by sending our used water back to the natural cleansing systems of soil, plants, air and sunshine for reclamation and re-use. . . . They warned that the discharge of wastewater into natural bodies of water disregarded powerful forces of nature and amounted to a grand plan for disaster. They also refused to believe that man-made machinery or mechanical treatment plants could ever match nature’s reliable water-cleaning capabilities.” Sheaffer, a good environmentalist, sees water as returning again and again in natural cycles.

Unlike most environmentalists, Sheaffer has gone beyond this statement of faith to build a system, putting it into action in the real world. Hamilton Lakes’ seemingly miraculous wastewater system (a “land-treatment” system) is not the result of any magic ingredient or unheard-of high technology. The key is allowing plenty of time and keeping raw sewage away from the open air. First, underground pipes carry used water away from the hotels and offices and into a king-size garbage grinder (comminutor), two parallel screws whose threads are knife blades big enough and strong enough to mince any solids into tiny pieces.

From the grinder, the pipes deliver the raw sewage into the bottom of cell #1, to keep it away from the air. Cell #1 and its companion, cell #2, are both about 19 feet deep and together have a surface area of an acre and a half. They are the happy homes to billions of waste-eating bacteria, which occur naturally and don’t have to be encouraged. The equation is simple: more bacteria (of the right kind) and more time means less offensive sewage and cleaner water. To encourage the bacteria to be fruitful and multiply, the system bubbles 60 percent more air than in a conventional treatment plant up from the bottom of the cells. Hamilton Lakes has two pumps that can operate singly or in tandem, a third for backup if either or both are out of commission, and a propane-powered generator to run them if the electricity is cut off.

To give the bacteria time, the cells are designed so that any given batch of wastewater will spend about five weeks there. (In a conventional sewage-treatment plant–which employs more voracious bacteria–this “detention time” would be six to eight hours, after which the treated wastewater would be piped out to the handiest body of water.) Some solids remain at the bottom of the cells; after 20 years or so it will be time to clean out this sludge, which can be used as a fertilizer and soil conditioner.

After 35 to 40 days in the cells, the water contains so little pollution that it is inoffensive–in fact, it’s three to four times cleaner than the state EPA requires for irrigation. (The water gets filtered and chlorinated before use anyhow.) But enough nutrients linger to fertilize the grass and shrubs on the property. Then green plants slurp up the last nitrates and phosphates, purifying the water even further, so that what eventually soaks into the ground or runs into the project’s five decorative lakes will be satisfactorily pure. Sheaffer’s alchemy has turned what was waste (sewage) into a resource (irrigation plus fertilizer).

The rest of the land-treatment system is auxiliary. Irrigation does no good during the roughly 120 days of winter, nor is it needed during a rainstorm, so the project also includes a generously sized storage lagoon to hold the outflow from cells #1 and #2 at such times. “The storage just enhances the water quality,” says Cowlishaw. “The water coming out is really excellent.” Illinois EPA standards specify a maximum of 10 milligrams of Biological Oxygen Demand (a generic measure of rotten stuff) and 12 milligrams of suspended solids (likewise) per liter of water. Sheaffer’s firm has presented figures to the state Pollution Control Board showing that Hamilton Lakes has these measures down to 3. “Many treatment plants would be proud to put out such effluent,” says Cowlishaw. And Sheaffer adds: “It’s not like a septic tank system, which adds nitrates below the root zone.”

Other problem water includes rain that falls on the development’s buildings, sidewalks, parking lots, and roads: since it collects spilled antifreeze, oil, plastic, cigarette butts, and the like, it can pack quite a wallop of pollution. Sheaffer has arranged that this water run off, not through pipes but over low-lying grassy land, or “swales,” which helps reduce both its speed (which could erode the ground) and its pollution. Best of all, Sheaffer notes, the water levels in the development’s two wells have not fallen significantly. Although it’s too early to be sure, this may mean that Hamilton Lakes is also succeeding in its goal of self-sufficiency, reusing and replacing the groundwater instead of mining it.

This March, the Hamilton Lakes system–Illinois’ first–will have been working for seven years. “Because it’s new, we inspect it more often than we would a [conventional] facility of the same size,” says Ted Denning, who manages Chicago-area field operations for the Illinois EPA’s Division of Water Pollution Control. But to date, “other than a few minor things and some adjustments in their permit, we haven’t had any problems.” This is in sharp contrast to the conventional treatment plant, which typically suffers at least one “gross upset per year,” according to one authority in the field.

“There’s a constant migration of people to [visit] Hamilton Lakes,” says Sheaffer with satisfaction. “A couple of weeks ago, we had ten people from Williamson County, Tennessee, next to where the Saturn plant is going in. We had the vice president of Colonial Williamsburg,” as well as city and county officials from around the Chicago metropolitan area. “It gets attention because it’s an expression of a philosophy counter to the general trend and it’s been successful.”

He puts more faith in the power of example to inspire than in the power of law to coerce. And he may be right. After a four- or five-year lull, Sheaffer and Roland are now working on more than two dozen land-treatment systems (at various stages of construction) in Illinois–half a dozen in Lake County alone.

Without that land-treatment system, Hamilton Lakes probably would not exist today–it would have had to wait for the village of Itasca to enlarge its own sewage-treatment plant, a time- and money-consuming business. And Sheaffer would probably never have come up with the system if he had not already been thinking along those lines. A journalist once attributed Sheaffer’s use-and-reuse philosophy to a childhood spent in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with a concentrated Amish settlement. He himself traces it back to his PhD days at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. “I was a flood-control man,” he recalls. “I wrote one of the few doctorates to be published and become a rare book”–Flood Proofing, which described how buildings could be designed to minimize flood losses. At the time, this was a controversial approach because the advocates of flood control through large dam projects feared it would reduce the demand for their services.

“There’d be a flood,” Sheaffer says, “and the sewage-treatment plants and garbage dumps would be involved because they were located in the floodplains. I’d chide them: ‘Why can’t you keep those things off the floodplain?’ And they’d say, ‘If you knew enough, you’d know that sewage-treatment works have to be at the lowest point in the jurisdiction'”–a premise of which Sheaffer became increasingly skeptical. (The federal construction grant program now forbids sewage-treatment plants from being located in floodplains.)

Those exchanges started him thinking about waste; so did U. of C. climatologist C. Warren Thornthwaite. “He was married to a Seabrook,” recalls Sheaffer, “of Seabrook Farms in New Jersey, who made frozen food. They’d process the vegetables and throw the waste back on the land in a kind of half-baked land-treatment system. He gave a couple of lectures on it, and I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t cities do this?'” Sheaffer’s questions to the operators of flooded sewage plants became more pointed.

“When I was at the University of Chicago as a student, and later as a staff member [at the Center for Urban Studies, 1966-1970], I kept saying that we ought to look at each waste as a raw material–ask the question, ‘What investment is required to be able to use it?’ Not many people thought that way. And I was naive. I thought the world would come running.”

In fact the world had been running in the opposite direction for some time. When the torrential rains of August 2-3, 1885, swept a tide of noxious pollution out into the lake (the city’s water supply), Chicago faced a sewage-disposal crisis. The City Council appointed a Drainage and Water Supply Commission, which was able to produce only a preliminary report before it lost its funding. That was long enough, however, for its members to decide against the idea of what was then called “sewage farming.” The “right” (that is, more permeable) kind of soils were too far away and the cost of piping the stuff there was too great. The group also seemed uneasy that land treatment was much commoner overseas than in the United States, where examples were few and far between. (The closest one, in the planned town of Pullman, then south of the city, unfortunately suffered an overflow into Lake Calumet, polluting Chicago’s ice supply.) Instead of land treatment, the commission chose “dilution beyond offense by means of canal to Illinois Valley.”

This vision–expressed by Chicago Sanitary District consulting engineer Lyman E. Cooley–was chimerical, but nevertheless it established what is now the Metropolitan Sanitary District and initiated one of Chicago’s epochal engineering projects, the digging of the Sanitary and Ship Canal. When it opened, reversing the Chicago River and sending the sewage south, the typhoid rate went down in Chicago but rose in Saint Louis; the great Illinois River fishery was soon decimated; and within a few years, the federal government stepped in to limit the amount of water the city could divert from Lake Michigan for dilution purposes.

A century later, Sheaffer still regards the commission’s choice as a historic mistake. “At a fraction of the cost and effort,” he claims in his 1983 book Future Water (authored with Leonard A. Stevens), “Chicago might have led the way with a land treatment system that could have demonstrated how the nation might use its wastewater as a resource without contaminating crucial water supplies.”

As the 20th century dawned, it became standard practice to treat sewage before sending it into the streams, but dilution remained an essential part of the system. In 1972, Congress finally passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, which established a national goal “that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” As Senator Edmund Muskie put it, in one of Sheaffer’s favorite quotations, “These policies . . . simply mean that streams and rivers are no longer to be considered part of the waste treatment process.”

Had the letter of the 1972 amendments been followed, Sheaffer’s current mission would long since have been accomplished and Hamilton Lakes would be a typical suburban development. Under the law, the federal government undertook a stupendous public-works program, granting $34 billion in ten years to local governments to construct “treatment works.” The law directed the EPA to encourage the recycling of sewage as fertilizer on the land and to dispose of any leftover pollutants in a “confined and contained” manner–that is, not to treat them for a time and then dump them in the river.

Sheaffer worked on environmental matters for the Army from 1970 to 1973–receiving a citation for “exceptional civilian service”–and had a hand in drafting the law. He thought the law would make a difference, but he soon learned otherwise. “As soon as the money became available, EPA started working on big assimilation models–to see how much each stream could take!” In Future Water, he elaborates:

“Dilution was not dead. The country’s sanitary engineers proceeded as if the only difference made by the new law was the immense amounts of money it authorized to do the same old thing. For example, in Connecticut two years after the 1972 amendments were passed, a proposed new plan for water supply indicated that with minor exceptions the state’s rivers were not to be used for drinking water because they had to continue as wastewater-receiving streams. They could possibly serve for recreation, but not for human consumption. Connecticut’s top water-pollution-control official, a sanitary engineer in the classic mold, simply did not take seriously the new direction set by Congress–nor did his counterparts in other states, and, indeed, in the very agency administering the new law, the EPA. In the few years of its life, the agency had filled up with traditionalists.” The idea of “zero discharge” came to be considered a childish congressional fantasy. But zero discharge is exactly what Hamilton Lakes has achieved.

Sheaffer concludes that legislation isn’t the answer. “Governor Thompson says he needs $600 million for additions to sewage-treatment plants. I tell legislators they should look at land treatment instead. The developer builds it himself and reduces costs, plus it’s on the tax rolls!”

Sheaffer adds, “I have since realized that the law neither helps nor harms. It’s a philosophical change that’s needed, and laws don’t change philosophies.” He’s betting that examples–working, privately funded, taxpaying examples–will.

“For more than ten years, U.S. EPA has promoted land treatment,” insists Charles Pycha, who works for the agency’s Region Five in Chicago, pushing “innovative and alternative” technologies like Sheaffer’s. “It’s natural, it’s low cost, it’s easy to operate, and it provides a high level of treatment.” Not only are cities seeking federal sewage-treatment grants required to consider land treatment, the federal government will pick up an extra 10 to 20 percent of the capital costs of land-treatment systems, and cities choosing them go to the head of the line for money. In addition, alternative technologies expected to cost as much as 15 percent more than conventional plants are counted as equal in cost.

But it hasn’t been enough. There are more such projects now than there were a few years ago, but even Pycha acknowledges, “Success has been slower than I would have liked.” The total numbers are surprisingly small. In the six midwestern states for which Pycha is responsible, each of the northern three–Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan–has several dozen land-treatment systems. The southern three–Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio–have only at most half a dozen each. If land treatment is such a good idea, why do land-treatment systems account for less than 10 percent of the waste-treatment systems in the midwest?

Sheaffer blames the establishment, especially the engineering establishment, which he charges with preferring to go on building plants as they have always been built. “The engineering field is so oriented in a certain way,” he complains in his energetic, gravelly voice. “You can sit and talk to people about circular systems and you might as well be talking to that hat.” There is something to that, acknowledges Gary Shaefer, director of natural resources for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC). “There’s nothing more stodgy than a civil engineer. I’m one, so I can say that–because you’re in the business of providing reliable service to municipal clients. It’s a conservative area, and [land treatment] is not a conservative system.”

But stodginess isn’t always just stodginess for its own sake. “On a conventional plant,” says Pycha, “a conservative firm will have other jobs to look at, and people who know exactly what worked and what didn’t. There are a lot out there who, if a nice, clean land-application system fell into their laps, would go with it. But to go out and develop it would be very difficult for them.” Besides, most towns have already sunk money into a conventional system, which they may want only to expand or upgrade. In that case, “it’s probably easier to stay with a similar-type process.”

Out in the suburbs, land treatment does liberate the developer from having to obtain sewer service. But a developer’s incentive is a professional planner’s anathema: “Counties and municipalities have always used withholding of sewer service as a growth-management tool,” says NIPC executive director Larry Christmas. “Land application takes that away from them.” Adds Gary Shaefer: “A loophole allows these systems to go through without any [NIPC] review. All [conventional] sewage-treatment plants in the six-county area have to have a 15- to 20-year plan. NIPC reviews it if there’s any change or a new one proposed.” The idea is to avoid duplication or overbuilding with federal funds. NIPC feels it should have power to review proposed land-treatment systems for the same reason. “Land-treatment systems may be taking potential customers from the [sewage-treatment plant] that’s there–so the ability to recover federal expenditures is limited.”

If anything, Sheaffer is gleeful that land treatment “thwarts the sewer-line-planning mentality.” He points out that land-treatment systems require more green space than most plans provide for, so there is no danger of the countryside being overrun with wall-to-wall office buildings.

Land itself can be a limiting factor, though. The soils of the upper midwestern states are lighter and more porous: they can absorb irrigation better, and need it more, than do the heavier, tighter, more clayey soils of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Thus the same amount of wastewater requires more land in the lower midwest. And the more valuable the land, the more difficult it is to consign it to growing green plants, rather than the steel-and-brick variety. “That’s why most municipalities would not opt for this,” says NIPC’s Schaefer. “It ties up too much land. The buzzword these days is economic development. Why tie up this land when you could put a factory there?”

None of this visibly deters Sheaffer. “I feel everybody has the right to clean water,” he says. “You cannot come by a stream anywhere in Illinois and see anything the eye would regard as clean. I think it’s a tragedy that we’re using our streams as part of sewage treatment. The law says they’re not supposed to be, and I’m going to do everything I can to make them carry it out.”

“I can remember running through the Philadelphia airport with two buckets of chicken-slaughterhouse waste,” says Bill Eyring, a former Sheaffer colleague now in sales. “It was part of a contract, and I had to bring it back here to where we had a lab. . . . No, it wasn’t like usual engineering work. But nothing Sheaffer and Roland does is like typical engineering work.”

The “circular philosophy” is not limited to wastewater, nor has Sheaffer’s work been. An earlier Sheaffer project was Mount Hoy (better known as Mount Trashmore) in the Roy C. Blackwell Recreational Forest Preserve in southwestern Du Page County. The 150-foot hill is “a huge pile of solid waste collected for the best part of a decade from nearly one million people in suburban Chicago,” each day’s accumulation covered with its own layer of clay, and the whole thing blanketed by a layer of soil that now grows grass and small trees. (On winter weekends and winter holidays, you can rent an inner tube for $1 and slide down.) Sheaffer’s point is that if you must bury garbage, this “land-build” beats a landfill–you can more easily collect and control any leakage than at ground level.

Now, one of Sheaffer’s newest clients–the Economic Development Commission of Chicago–is offering the chance to prove his ideas can be practical in an urban setting. EDC is particularly anxious to revive Chicago industrial parks. “We feel that right now the city needs someone with imagination,” explains EDC executive director Joe Abel, who was planning director in Du Page for 17 years and worked with Sheaffer there. All the usual incentives–tax abatements, training, new infrastructure–are important to attracting tenants to an industrial park. “But to get rid of [Chicago’s] negative image, we need something new.” “Something new” is Sheaffer’s vision of a “Resource Management Industrial Park.”

Sheaffer’s first question: “What does the city have that nobody is trying to take from it?” One answer is–rubble. Right now the remnants of demolished buildings are either dumped illegally in the city or trucked to the suburbs and dumped, for substantial sums, in landfills. (According to Patrick Barry, writing in Chicago Enterprise, for the developer to dispose of the remains of the Mandel Building–now at 425 N. Michigan–in Du Page would cost $800,000.)

Thus the city can charge developers a substantial fee for the right to dump unsalvageable bricks and mortar on the industrial-park-to-be, beat the out-of-town disposal price, and still make money. This rubble will form the raw material, Mount Trashmore-style, for a 90-foot “ski/sled hill” near the factories and for berms around the property. Besides saving landfill space in Du Page County and earning money, the finished landforms will offer both a novelty and a buffer to the surrounding neighborhood (which is as yet undetermined).

The dirt to cover the rubble will come from a 20-foot-deep lake to be excavated nearby; the lake will offer convenient drainage for the site. Sheaffer envisions using water-to-air heat pumps to give industrial-park tenants the benefits of the lake water’s relative coolness in summer and relative warmth in winter–thus cutting utility costs. (This was part of a preliminary plan for Hamilton Lakes that was never implemented; engineers don’t always get to decide which of their neat ideas become real. “One neat part of this,” says Paul Borek, the EDC staffer in charge, “is to put an innovative idea generator like Jack together in a room with a pragmatic developer, and watch them begin to communicate.”)

Another possibility is an “integrated energy center,” in which food-processing wastes (one possible park site is next to two candy factories) are used to make ethanol for sale, with the extra heat and carbon dioxide going to work in a neighboring hydroponic greenhouse. (Again, such an ethanol plant was part of another unimplemented Sheaffer plan, worked out with the Center for Neighborhood Technology some years back but kiboshed by a crash in world ethanol prices. Decatur’s Archer-Daniels-Midland, a soybean-processing firm, has been growing produce in a similar greenhouse for several years, and more successfully than most of its competitors.)

The EDC has also just received a three-year permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to try out a way of using the Metropolitan Sanitary District’s Deep Tunnel shafts to earn more money for the industrial park. (MSD dug the shafts to use in collecting excess rainwater for temporary storage.) The idea is to drop water down one of these 300-foot shafts (almost twice the height of Niagara Falls), where it would turn turbines and produce electricity for peak-usage hours. This electricity might either be sold back to Commonwealth Edison or directed specially to industrial-park tenants as another benefit of locating there. EDC would then use cheaper, off-peak (nighttime) electricity to pump the water back up for another go-round. As long as the electricity generated at peak times is worth more than the electricity consumed during off-peak times, the project should make a profit.

“People don’t always see how hills and lakes relate to jobs in the city,” says Borek. “But if it creates a new kind of environment–the real estate market is perception more than anything else–and if we use the money generated to leverage more private funds, then we can bring down the costs of new building”–not to mention the costs of utilities and waste disposal.

“Chicago is trying to come abreast of, and surpass, its competitors for industrial sites,” Borek says. “So we’ve got to look beyond the traditional means. Our willingness to explore these areas shows brokers and site locators that we’re looking to jump ahead. We’re not singing the same song.” Indeed not: “Just as you can talk about circular wastewater systems,” says Sheaffer, “we’re talking about a circular economy for the city.” As long as someone is willing to invest.

EDC plans a report by April and aims to have the ideas fully packaged and put out to developers for bid by the end of 1988. “Then,” says Borek, “we’ll see, real quick, whether we’ve got something that will work.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.