Nick Rosen |

Melvyn Rutter knee-deep in reed-bed
Melvyn Rutter in reed-bed

Reedbed Filtration is a natural approach to human waste water treatment. International environmental scientist, MELVYN RUTTER is a born-again reed-bed enthusiast. Here he describes his personal journey.

I began my research in the spring of 1995, shortly after graduating as a mature student from Huddersfield University. I visited many sites with reedbeds, learned their designs, and saw what they did. I formulated a design that avoided all of the faults and mistakes of the systems I studied.

All methods of waste water treatment harness the work of bacteria to break down nutrients and pollutants. In the presence of air ( oxygen ) things break down, and in the absence of air ( oxygen ) things build up. The original developers of reedbeds used a horizontal flow system. This is where the effluents flow in the top and out of the top of the bed. They normally used a single bed. Sometimes they elongated it, and twisted the flows round and round again.

My vertical flow reedbeds achieve 99% reduction in levels of pollutants by being aerobic filter systems. Vertical flow reedbed can work at a rate of 1m2 per person per day. So they are small and effective, and therefore we build them at a comparatively low cost.

I thought that if reedbeds had value, then they would treat cattle slurry. Cattle slurry is more easily available and I didn’t fancy diddling about with human sewage. My tests showed the green stuff going into the reedbed, came out a bit of a lager colour, with a 99% reduction in COD, ammonia, nitrates, and phosphates. I thought if this is the case, then who was doing vertical flow reedbeds. I was amazed to find only one or two companies, none of which had any of the information I had gathered from my 18 months of tests and trials.

Horizontal flows are designed to have standing water, and can smell. The flows of a single bed system will want to collect in the centre, leaving the sides dry and not working, while the centre is too wet to work well. When the flows are elongated to flow round and round, the actual flows cut to the most direct route exasperating the problems of flows in the middle of the beds. Horizontal beds reduce pollutants by 64%, possibly 70%. Some minerals and chemicals can build up over time, causing many problems in the discharge.
Some early systems were built as two parallel systems. So that one system is used for 2 weeks, while the other system rests. This principle alternates every two weeks. The problem I could see with this was that people would forget to change the systems over, on a regular basis. Relying on humans to do things regularly is being optimistic.

It must be said that without the original work of these pioneers, people like me couldn’t develop this ecological technology. I have met many of these pioneers and they are lovely people, some of whom I count as friends.
I saw in the work of Severn Trent Water, that they put a vertical flow reedbed after their horizontal beds, and this vertical bed did the job. I wondered why they didn’t just use vertical flow beds all the time.

My vertical flow reedbeds have the effluent enter the top and leave at the opposite base end. My figures showed that the very best results were from three consecutive beds, where they were arranged to be stepping down. By dividing the reedbed into three units, by the time the water was collecting in the centre, it was exiting each of the beds, to be spread wide again successively.
With vertical flow we managed to get 99% reductions in pollutants. There was no standing water, and therefore no smell. As it turned out, vertical flow reedbeds can be 8 to 10 times smaller than horizontal beds. So a standard household vertical reedbed could be 6 to 10m2. While a horizontal reedbed would need to be 25 to 30 and up to 100m2, according to some suppliers.
I still used the idea of parallel reedbeds, but I used it where there were multiples of maybe 50m2 or 100m2. So say a caravan park needed effluent treatment for 200 people, I would build 200m2 as 2 parallel systems, each with a top bed and a bottom bed. This would then be four beds, two top bed and two bottom beds. Should business be good and they want to increase the number of caravans on site, we could simply add more parallel systems of the same size. This helps with the even distribution to each of the parallel systems. In practice it’s a bit of a diddle to get right. So I have re-used this old idea of parallel systems to my advantage.
One thing I have noticed with other reedbed companies is their large fees for doing the work. Currently Yes Reedbed prices are one third of the prices of other companies.
My priority is to solve the problem, and one main solution is to provide access to this technology by the majority of people. My household reedbed system costs £2,200, including VAT. This is for goods, labour, materials, digger and driver, design and build, and return visits to make sure the system is established.
Other companies can charge upwards of £7,000 for the build, and even £3000 just for design. Return visits are also an additional charge.

It could well be that my prices are the reason why we build an average 40 systems each year.
Community reedbeds are brilliant in theory, but even in “green communities” sharing facilities, such as a reedbed, is a minefield. Some people want to do things regularly, while some won’t do anything ever. Those wanting to do things raise a cost, while those not wanting to do anything won’t share or pay for anything.

All the same, I have built reedbeds for communities, and most are working well. Those who want to do things, see there is little to do with an established reedbed. While those who won’t do anything don’t care and would simply call me up should something go wrong. Even so, there is always someone who thinks they know better, having read the internet, set about making improvements that inevitably lead to problems. Then they call me to put things right, denying all knowledge of who possibly could have done these silly things.

A reedbed in the mountains of The Czech Republic led to locals massing to shout their complaints, waving banners, saying they don’t want this western science in their village, and what was wrong with emptying their sewage from their buckets directly in the forest. Luckily I had met the Mayor, who understood what I was doing and managed to calm the mob down. But there was a moment I thought I was going to be put in a pot and eaten.
I have been invited to begin building reedbeds for villages in South Africa. My theory is to help these people to help themselves. I can’t build every reedbed in the world. But my ego believes there is no reason why every reedbed in the world shouldn’t be a Yes Reedbed. So in using local goods, services, and labour, it is the locals who will earn benefits from this work. How far these benefits will reach has yet to be discovered. This is my mission for this year.

My Reedbeds are modulated systems with a top bed and bottom bed system. With the module system, businesses can increase usage in equally sized additional modules. So a caravan site may have a maximum population of 100 people on the site, and a 100m2 reedbed would work fine. Should business develop and improve, the additional waste water can be treated through adding more 100m2 modules of reedbed. We have a number of customers who have asked for additional reedbeds for a second and third time.

My products, called Yes Reedbeds have been tried with industrial effluents. Even where effluents go to the sewage system, reductions in concentrations can greatly reduce the costs of discharges to sewer. Water companies must take domestic waste water. But they are not entitled to take industrial effluents. With the expansion of housing developments, existing sewage works are reaching capacity. As a result some industries are facing the possibility of not being able to get rid of their effluents.

Last year we helped industries to save £20,000 per annum from reedbed systems that cost less than this figure. Every time the results are the best in the history of that company.

Our first reedbeds were built from October 1996. Although the building of reedbeds has developed over these past 5 or 6 years to approximately 40 per year. We have built more than 240 in total. There are two other companies in the UK who have built more, both being approximately 350 systems. So at a rate of 40 each year we are catching up on our competition.

For our work in building reedbeds we have gained a Certificate of Experience for the European Union, and a National Innovation Award ( 2006). This has raised our profile and we have many enquiries across Europe, Asia and Africa.

We have proposed our reedbeds to international aid agencies. The argument being that untreated waste water is causing disease and death to people in third world and refugee situations. If our reedbeds can reduce pollutant levels by 99%, then in theory we could reduce the instances of disease and death by a similar level. Unfortunately, I have no had one positive response from any of the aid agencies these past 4 years.

I know of no system that treats waste water better than reedbeds. Most treatment systems are not as good as reedbeds, and no one seems able to offer reedbeds at our prices. Once they are working as they should they should continue to do so for as long as they are used for the purpose for which they were built.

I know of reedbeds that were built 120 years ago and are still working perfectly well. I would not be surprised if the Romans and the Egyptians used reedbeds in some form or other. The principle behind reedbeds is so robust it can be applied in the many different ways by the many reedbed designers

In a way we have all opened our understanding to how natural systems work. Indeed, as a principle, finding natural, ecological solutions to other human problems seems to offer hope for the many problems facing humanity at this time.

Melvyn Rutter BSc ( Hons ),Yorkshire Ecological Solutions. Consultant  in Water Quality and Reedbed Filtration Technologies

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the web site

5 Responses to “Reedbeds, not sewers”

  1. Jaliza Liebenberg

    I am in the proccess of building one. What reeds can I use in South Africa Lowveld?

  2. derry delany

    If it is a vertical system how do you stop the roots from drying out when you are away for a month

  3. Edgardo B. San Juan

    I have another improvements that will totally eliminate channeling and by-passing of the waste water in the plants rhiozomes, This means that I can take the technology to the next higher step. I do not have the financial capacity to finance my research, is anyone out there interested in being my counterpart researcher and a “financier” as well?

  4. Ken

    I would want to ask “is there a harvestable product from this system, and if so, what is the potential volume and value of what might be harvested. I am taking an interest in using duckweed to draw nutrients form waste water. This has a high value and high volume of harvestable material. Often times it is these multiple benefits that are required to justify implementation.

  5. mainah

    Our town tried this a number of years ago. They fed raw sewerage into a Marsh. It worked very well during the warm months but come Winter, waste began to appear at the outlet due to decreased biological activity.


Leave a Reply