This startup watches what SF flushes – and grows food with it

Epic Cleantec saves millions of gallons of water a year, and helps companies adhere to drought regulations

By Jeff Elder

Examiner staff writer

Someone likes to flush soy sauce packets down the toilet at a large Bay Area tech campus. They probably think no one is watching, but someone is.

That someone is Aaron Tartakovsky, the CEO of Epic Cleantec, a 10-person San Francisco startup that installs mini wastewater treatment systems in some of The City’s biggest and most fashionable buildings. When his startup was treating the tech company’s wastewater, Tartakovsky discovered the packets.

“You tend to be the recipient of lots of strange things when you’re sitting at the bottom of a sewer pipe,” Tartakovsky told The Examiner. “We have a flush-it-and-forget-it mentality.”

The South of Market startup was started by Tartakovsky and his engineer father, Igor, and two others, has won praise from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Fast Company, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Epic Cleantec goes into the basements of buildings and installs pipes and tanks that divert and collect wastewater from showers, sinks, laundry, washing machines, and, sometimes, toilets. Their systems remove all the “solids” (much more on that in a moment), treat the water, capture the energy from the heat in the water, and recirculate the water back into the building to be used in non-potable ways, like in toilets, washing machines, and for watering plants.

Why do all that? For one thing, it’s the law. Since 2015, San Francisco has required new, large buildings to re-use water. More similar regulation is on the way, locally and statewide.

“It’s required for newer buildings in San Francisco,” says Joe Walsh, vice president of Related California, which hired Epic Cleantec to operate the water treatment system in its sleek, 40-story, Fifteen Fifty Building near Van Ness and Mission streets. “More importantly, it saves us 2 million gallons a year.”

That’s money, and in drought-parched California, “It’s the right thing to do,” Walsh says.

Water re-use is not yet required in San Jose. But builder Gary Dillabough is installing Epic Cleantec systems in his sprawling, 1.2-million office complex. “This is going to save us 15 million gallons of water a year,” Dillabough says. “And we’re going to use the fertilizer to help with gardening.”

OK, now let’s talk about the poop – and growing food with it.

If you feel squeamish, or just glanced haltingly at the bagel you’re eating, you are not alone. “Everyone needs a little help getting past the yuck factor,” Tartakovsky, the Epic Cleantec CEO, consoles.

In its “black water” projects – those that treat toilet water as well as sink and laundry water – Epic Cleantec sometimes uses the human poop to make natural soil products.

Yes, like Matt Damon did to grow potatoes in “The Martian.” Everyone is curious about that. Officials at NASA even pulled Tartakovsky aside two years after the 2015 movie came out to ask about the possibility.

Epic Cleantec uses soil mixed with treated wastewater solids to plants at the company’s demonstration garden in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Epic Cleantec)

Epic Cleantec uses soil mixed with treated wastewater solids to plants at the company’s demonstration garden in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Epic Cleantec)

Well, Epic Cleantec employees have grown, eaten, and served food grown using treated human waste as fertilizer. And not just potatoes. Epic Cleantec makes Damon’s fare seem spartan as well as Martian. If Damon had Epic Cleantec, he might still be on Mars, chowing down.

Epic Cleantec has used treated human poop to grow lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, snap peas, radishes, mint, rosemary, sage, and a variety of flowers. The poop came from Stanford University and the downtown San Francisco NEMA Building, another stylish apartment building at 10th and Market that uses Epic Cleantec systems.

The poop was used to grow vegetables in a demonstration garden run by Epic Cleantec.

No current Epic Cleantec customers grow food with the solids removed from their wastewater, not yet. And some, like the Fifteen Fifty Building, just use “gray water” systems that don’t capture water from toilets (“black water”) at all.

But it’s coming, Tartakovsky says. “We are big proponents of black water systems. The status quo is not sustainable. Our industry is where solar was 15 years ago.”

The question is ours to answer, he believes: Do we get past the yuck factor, or keep flushing soy sauce packets?

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