March 13, 2012 at 2:09 PM ET
If you take a stroll along a newly paved six-block stretch of downtown Bellingham, Wash., you'll be excused if you think you put your foot in a toilet. The sidewalk contains 5 tons of crushed potty.
"We have the know-how and the people and the technology to do roads better than we do," Stephen Muench, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle, told me. "The only thing lacking is the want to do it."
Muench led the development of Greenroads, which addresses a range of environmental and community impacts of roadway projects such as noise, pollution prevention and the use of recycled material.
The non-profit serves as a third-party rating agency to review projects submitted for certification, awarding ratings of Certified, Silver, Gold and Evergreen.
Bellingham's Meador Kansas Ellis Trail Project earned Silver certification for incorporating aspects such as porous pavements that naturally treat runoff, LED street lighting, and diverting 400 toilets from the landfill.
The toilets came from the Bellingham non-profit Sustainable Connections that received a federal stimulus grant for energy-efficiency upgrades to 400 units under the Bellingham Housing Authority that involved replacement of water and electrical fixtures.
Old toilets drain 3.5 gallons of water or more per flush. New water-efficient models use less than half that, which means more water for other uses and less electricity spent pumping it to and from the toilet.
When the non-profit replaced 400 water-guzzling toilets with ones that sip instead, they had about 5 tons of porcelain to recycle.
"They called me up and were like, 'Can you do anything?'" Freeman Anthony, a project engineer with the city of Bellingham who led the trail project, told me.
He contacted his concrete supplier, who agreed to crush the potties and incorporate the porcelain into their mixture.
"Originally, we went 40 percent toilet by volume and that was a little bony, you might say, because they are jagged little pieces," Anthony said. "We backed it off to 25 percent and that seemed to be the magic number."
More green roads
According to Muench, 12 more projects are currently under review for Greenroads certification and another 10 to 20 are considering pursuing it.
He admits that's a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of road projects, which may be several hundred in any given state a year, but thinks the practices that earn certification will leak into roadway construction in general.
"Standards and regulations take a lot of time to get put into effect and when they do, it's probably not cutting-edge technology," Muench noted.
He's optimistic that Greenroads will slowly raise the bar of the standards, and that, regardless, engineers will strive to do better than the minimum requirements.
"We have a bare minimum for passing a class, but I sure would hope my students shoot for more than that," he said. "They do. And they are the same people who go out into industry."
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.