3M Environmental Innovation Award
Making a difference
through innovative
environmental solutions


2014 Winner - Ross Thurston

Left to right: Carla McFarlane, Communications and Community Relations Manager, 3M Canada, Ross Thurston, 3M Environmental Innovation Medal Winner, Paul Ruest, President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada and patron of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. (Photo: Matt Zambonin/Canadian Geographic)

During his career in water remediation, this Queens University graduate realized that livestock farmers did not have a sustainable system to effectively manage the large amounts of effluent produced by their animals. Thurston’s LWR system segregates and concentrates nutrients while recycling clean water from livestock manure. The system’s benefits include: reducing manure volume by up to 85 per cent, alleviating storage issues; allowing for strategic nutrient application on crops which significantly reduces the risk of harmful runoff; and producing an abundant and reusable source of clean water. No other manure management system on the market is able to recapture water while producing zero waste and the LWR is the only one to offer farmers a positive return on investment.

Worldwide, agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of all water consumption.  Thurston‘s system can dramatically reduce fresh water withdrawals on hog and dairy farms by 40 per cent. At a time when drought is becoming an increasing threat to our planet this is the kind of ingenuity that deserves the recognition the 3M Award will bring.

This water came from manure

Ross Thurston, the 2014 3M Environmental Innovation Award winner, is honoured for his system of turning farm waste into its reusable parts, including clean water

By Omar Mouallem

Maybe his grandfather’s dairy resembled Ma and Pa Kettle’s farm on the countryside, but third-generation farmer Gordon Speirs’ Shiloh Dairy is an industrial operation. Nestled in Wisconsin, “America’s Dairyland,” the family company milks 2,100 cows three times daily. It’s one of more than 20,000 concentrated animal feeding farms, or CAFOs, in North America. In other words, a factory farm. And one this size can produce as much manure as a city of 100,000 people.

Liquefied with waste water, the effluent produced at Shiloh, like most such CAFOs, is hauled across the fields by trucks to a “lagoon,” which in turn irrigates their alfalfa and corn crops with nutrient-rich fertilizer. It’s an imperfect process. Not only can nutrients be over-applied, damaging and reducing yields, but some CAFOs close to water bodies risk runoff and contamination of water sources. Last summer, farm runoff spiked Lake Erie with so much phosphorus that the Great Lake was overcome with a swirling toxic algae bloom that cut off 500,000 Ohioans from their drinking supply for days.

But the Speirs have invested in a solution: Livestock Water Recycling (LWR), a patented system that treats the effluent, turning it into useful solid nutrients and clean water, right on the farm. “Our industry needs to be moving in directions like this, doing a better job of conservation,” says Speirs, “and this is the direction we chose.” This will reduce Speirs’ water withdrawal by 40 per cent, according to LWR inventor Ross Thurston, a city slicker with a 2014 3M Environmental Innovation Award in his Calgary office.

“My upbringing couldn’t be further from a rural environment,” says the 51-year-old born-and-raised Calgarian, sitting in a boardroom decorated with hog and cattle pop art. It’s an average afternoon at the office, where 20 administrators, engineers and labourers work, but there’s some buzz around the previous day’s events: Bill Gates was photographed drinking treated human “poop-water,” as one headline put it, to prove the efficacy of one of his investments in a sanitations system doing essentially what LWR has done since 2007.

A typical LWR system is 18.3 by 30.5 metres large. Its head is a funnel that can guzzle up to 360 million litres of hog or cow effluent annually; its tail end, a pipe spouting clear water. Between them, an intestinal track of pipes separates large phosphorus and organic nitrogen solids into a pile, which can be applied to soil if the farmer has crops (or sold to one who does), and a nutrient liquid of mainly ammonium and potassium (also fertilizers) into a tank after a lot of conditioning, filtrating and dissolving. The fact that these fertilizers are segregated also means farmers can use them in exact measurements, rather than irrigating crops with mixed and disproportionately harmful amounts.

Back in the LWR headquarters, examples of these byproducts sit in enclosed glass bottles on the table before Thurston. Two contain hog manure and one holds water extracted from said manure, but now, apparently, so pristine you can drink it. And he does — taking a big swig of it at agriculture expos and on TV for incredulous onlookers. Visitors from Pakistan and China have also come to see the party trick. “Everywhere I went, from the suppliers to designers, they all said this can’t be done,” he says. “And now I can take you to a site where it’s working, and it’s working economically.”

In fact, he can take you to nine sites across the United States, namely the upper Midwest, where manure and dairy technology often set precedents for the rest of the developed world. It’s also where the Great Lakes provide a fifth of Earth’s surface fresh water.

“When we hear about water security,” explains Rob de LoŽ, University Research Chair in Water Policy and Governance at the University of Waterloo, “we think of places where water is scarce … too many people pulling too much water out of the water source.” But, he explains, having an abundance of water that’s too toxic to drink is an insecurity too. “That’s exactly what happened in Lake Erie.” It’s also what happened in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000, when E. coli from farm run-off sickened nearly half the townspeople and killed seven. To test the purity of its byproducts, LWR recently commissioned a third-party objective study by Olds College, in Olds, Alta., that proved the water resulting from the system was pathogen-free.

“Dairies are fundamentally environmental,” says Thurston. “They recycle, they recover, they reuse. A lot of their feed is byproduct feed. They just haven’t had a tool to deal with their manure.” That’s exacerbated by the fact that the number of CAFOs has increased fourfold in the United States since the early 1980s and is set to balloon in Europe, where decades-old milk production quotas were recently lifted. “Ten years ago,” says Thurston, “a large dairy in Wisconsin was 400 cows. Today a large dairy in Wisconsin is 5,000 cows.”

There are innumerable opponents of intensive animal farming practices, criticizing everything from air quality impact to the mistreatment of animals. But CAFOs wouldn’t exist if they weren’t profitable. Likewise, their owners’ motivations to adopt LWR — without mandate and at a cost of anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million — must also promise financial return. Thurston says it does, for farms with about 1,000 or more cattle or a few thousand hogs. “There’s potential to make a 20 to 30 per cent return on a $1-million operation every year, in two to five years.”

Fertilizer is expensive, accounting for nearly a tenth of Canadian farmers’ expenses, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. LWR lets them store, manage and sell individual nutrient byproducts such as ammonium and phosphorus. Less waste also means less hauling. “Right now,” says Gordon Speirs of Shiloh Dairy, “it takes four trucks of manure to fertilize an acre of land. But once this system is running properly, it should only take between half or one truckload an acre.”

It’s heartening for de LoŽ, an expert on the Panel on Sustainable Management of Water in the Agricultural Landscapes of Canada, to learn that such farm-scale technology is now available. “Anything that’s affordable for the farmer — because otherwise it’s not going to be used — that can effectively remove pathogens and nutrients from livestock run-off is fabulous. Bring it on!”

Thurston hesitates to call himself an environmentalist. And though he’s an entrepreneur through and through (LWR expects to double its revenues this year), he is, above all, a chemist who geeks out on the aesthetic pleasure of turning dirty water clean. “He usually has a madscientist look to him,” adds LWR marketing coordinator Lisa Fast during a tour of the production garage, where most of the system is assembled in three parts, loaded onto 18-wheelers and sent across the continent.

After Thurston graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., with a chemistry degree in 1986, his father, an oil and gas executive, got him a job at a Northern Alberta hazardous waste plant. But while the sludge — potent with heavy metals, salts, crude oil — was separated for safer and easier disposal, Thurston fixated on the clean water coming out the other end. “I quit my job when I thought, I’ll go do that instead.”

He created the company Industrial Waste Recycling in 1989, which was perfectly timed with a change in regulations that created a market for treating hydro-carbonated ground water. “It was pretty niche,” he says. “We came up with something that we took all over North America.” By 2001, IWR had been commissioned by multinationals as far away as Brazil and counted JFK Airport as a client.

But by then, most contaminated groundwater sites had been cleaned, he says, and IWR became a victim of its own success. Business declined. Further, because so often their services were government-mandated, clients didn’t value their product, says Thurston. “We weren’t making them something that improved their bottom line. So we started looking for what else we could do with water, and that offered maximum value for our customer.”

The shrinking IWR team plunged into environmental research and, to their surprise, learned that agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s water consumption, according to the UN World Water Development Report. Paradoxically, the planet needs to produce enough food for nine billion people by 2050 — with fewer natural resources. The IWR team wondered where they fit into this scenario. “Our specialty was taking really dirty, crappy water and cleaning it up,” deadpans Thurston. “We pulled the curtain back on Ďag’ and discovered manure.”

But, of course, manure and hydrocarbon waste are vastly different. “I went from being an expert in what I did to being an urban neophyte who knew nothing. We went to shows, went to conferences. Farmers love to talk to you about their stuff. We spent a lot of time reading and listening until we really understood manure.”

Since the first working LWR was installed on a Manitoba pig farm in 2008, Thurston and his growing engineering team have tweaked and improved the technology. Farmers can now operate it remotely, with an iPad app, and LWR is currently building a system capable of treating blended hog and cow manure. But for the global agricultural industry, its most promising feature has already been proven: it’s farm-scale technology that can shrink, grow and adapt for individual producers. “All farm systems have different approaches to how they deal with water,” explains Robert Gordon, an environmental scientist specializing in agriculture at the University of Guelph. “New technology like this is going to create further opportunities for reducing the environmental footprint of our food production systems.”

Thurston, for his part, seems to be warming up to the environmentalist label. “My other businesses didn’t feel like we were doing as much potential good as we are now,” he says. “I know we’ve now changed the way this issue will be dealt with. Whether we’re successful at it, or somebody copies us, or somebody buys us or we blow up, we’ve opened their eyes. The whole world said this can’t be done.”


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