Growing Ideas: Plants purify abbey's wastewater

Tropical plants will soon be purifying the wastewater at Koningshoeven Abbey in Tilburg. “As monks, it's only natural that we are focused on sustainability,” says Brother Isaac.

By fall 2018, the Trappist monks of Koningshoeven Abbey will have their own unique water purification system, which will use tropical plants to purify the million cubic meters of wastewater the abbey produces every year.

What does the Koningshoeven Abbey do?

“I often have to explain to people that 'being monks' remains our core business,” says Brother Isaac with a wink. The Trappists also brew beer and make organic cheese, jam, chocolate, and bread. Although the products are an important source of income, the abbey operates on a not-for-profit basis.

Koningshoeven is located in the Dutch Province of North Brabant, near the Belgian border. As well as investing over EUR 2 million (USD 2.33 million) of its own funds in the system, it has received subsidies for it from North Brabant and from Horizon 2020, the European Commission's innovation program.

“Our faith and our way of life naturally lead us to focus on sustainability, a circular approach and care for the environment. We live here on this planet and are very much aware of the impact we have on God's creation. If we pollute the environment, we are not doing things right. That’s why we try to do as much as we can to leave the world a cleaner place than when we came into it.”

“It's all a question of harnessing the latest technologies”

- Brother Isaac, Koningshoeven Abbey

How will the wastewater be purified?

“We will be purifying the water in a greenhouse using subtropical plants and micro-organisms. All the wastewater from our brewery, bakery, and jam and cheese making will be led along the roots of these plants, which will filter out the toxic substances. The many active microbes in these so-called biofilms will then break down the polluting substances.

“The water can then be reused for irrigation and rinsing out the bottles at the brewery. We eventually want to turn it into clean drinking water, which is something we’re developing together with experts in the aerospace industry. I would add that the plants are pleasing to the eye and you can scarcely smell the waste, so a visit to the purification greenhouse is an enjoyable outing!”

What is the key challenge?

“We humans can no longer go on producing and consuming in the way we have been. We need to learn to share things again and to constantly ask ourselves whether we have the right motives. At the abbey, we recently started an apiary to help preserve the bee population. It just so happens that this is in line with our other products and we earn a little money from it, but for us it is all about the impact it has on the environment.

We should seek to reuse and repurpose raw materials and used items, and we also need to approach life in a sustainable, energy-efficient way. We can no longer afford not to do this.

“Being politically correct simply doesn't deliver”

- Brother Isaac, Koningshoeven Abbey

What further innovations are you planning?

“I think that the abbey will stop using gas within three years. You may say that it isn’t a feasible goal for an abbey which is a national monument, but we believe it's possible. It will be expensive, of course, and we would have to make some concessions in terms of aesthetics – in the case of solar panels and the like – but I'm convinced we can do it.

On a global scale, I believe we can even handle the rapid rise in world population. It's all a question of harnessing the latest technologies and sharing amongst each other what we have on this earth.”

This conviction is also the reason behind the brothers' recent purchase of a Tesla. “The distance it can go on a single charge is perhaps limited and the costs of the car are high, but we made a conscious choice to buy an electric car and we’re not afraid of the criticism we may get. In the end, being politically correct simply doesn't deliver.”