“It’s not waste; it’s a resource.”
James Stahl ’65 is fascinated by the stuff other people flush and throw away. Not because of what it is, but because of what it could be.
“Most people look at garbage on the curb or what’s going down the bathroom drain and say, ‘That’s waste; let’s get rid of it,’ ” he says. “I think you have to ask the questions: ‘Is there anything salvageable there? Is there any way to recover that resource? Can we renew the worthiness of the elements?’ ”
Stahl’s redemptive view of waste permeates the operational philosophy of the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, where he left his mark over the course of 38 years, retiring in 2007 from the agency’s top job — chief engineer and general manager.
The Sanitation Districts provide wastewater and solid-waste management to more than half the county’s population, converting waste into resources, as the agency’s mission statement puts it.
Stahl realizes few share his ability to think of waste and resources as synonymous terms. He admits it’s difficult to overcome the public’s innate aversion to sewage.
“It’s a fear so strong you have to overcome it with education,” Stahl says.
What he would like people to know is that scientific and technological advances in environmental engineering have ushered in an unprecedented era of clean, efficient and nearly odorless waste conversion.
“We’ve made tremendous strides,” Stahl says. “And if we’ve done our job properly, you may not even know we’re there.”
Stahl traces his interest in sanitation to LMU engineering professor Jim Foxworthy, who emphasized the idea of water renewal.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1965, Stahl went on to complete a master’s degree in environmental engineering at Stanford. He is now a consultant with MWH Global, a water-resources engineering firm. He has also been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, a prestigious body that advises Congress and the president.
Despite lingering public distrust of reclaimed wastewater, Stahl sees water renewal as increasingly important in an era of rising population and relentless drought.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” he says. “We just need to grow out of our unfounded fear of the yuck factor and realize we’re all drinking the water Napoleon bathed in. Once we accept that, there are ways to recycle, reuse and renew our wastewater.”