Dirty Water : Wastewater treatment opportunity.
Updated: Jul 16, 2021
Image courtesy Peter Hershey
The recent EPA report on the Quality of our Wastewater treatment in 2016 highlights that there’s a lot to be done. The EPA 2016 Wastewater Report’s Summary findings are stark. It’s embarrassing to contemplate! But challenges need to be faced and very soon.
Here’s a very brief summary of the top 5 urgent issues.
50 /185 of Ireland’s urban areas did not meet European Union (EU) standards.
The final deadline to comply with these standards was 2005 (12 Years Ago).
Ireland is being taken to the European Court of Justice for not treating wastewater properly.
Raw sewage in wastewater is released into the environment from 44 urban areas.
Improvements are needed at 148 urban areas to address the priorities listed in the report.
It is clear that we need significant capital investment to upgrade deficient wastewater treatment systems, improve water quality and avoid financial penalties.
Opportunity hidden in the wastewater.
While the scale of our ‘dirty water situation’ is great, there are opportunities open to mine our wastewater for nutrients. ZWAI have previously sent submissions on this topic and it is now very pertinent to look at our proposals again. There are benefits in acting in sync with the new capital investment programme that will be needed.
Unfortunately, Irish wastewater policy is focused solely on “treating wastewater” in an effort to minimise the detrimental effects of wastewater discharges on the aquatic environment.
Our view is that a better policy would be to place equal emphasis on wastewater “segregation” as well as on “the treatment of wastewater”. This would greatly facilitate “wastewater pollution avoidance”, “nutrient resource recovery”, more efficient use of water, and water recycling where appropriate.
Zero Waste Alliance Ireland calls for a very radical revision of the EPA Code of Practice and Part H of the Irish Building Regulations.
The world’s finite phosphate resources are limited and this limited resource will be unable to keep up with the world’s growing and increasing demand for phosphorous fertilizer over the coming decades. In economics, for any amenity, product or service where there is a growing shortage, prices will begin to rise. Since there is no alternative to phosphate as a constituent of fertilizer we can only expect very serious price rises – resulting in food shortages, and increased prices which hit the poor worst. To soften the economic threat of rising phosphate prices, Ireland must be much more efficient in recycling phosphorous. It is of strategic importance that phosphorus should not be wasted, methods should be found to conserve and recycle it. If waste of phosphorus can be avoided, and phosphorus recycled as much as possible, this will be a “win-win” outcome, coinciding with our ZW policy of reducing and eliminating waste
Rationale of our ‘Dirty Water Mining’ proposals
In nature, the waste products of every living organism serve as raw materials to be transformed by other living creatures, or benefit the planet in other ways; and human communities must follow this ecological principle as far as possible;
“Zero Waste” is a realistic whole-system approach to addressing the problem of society’s unsustainable resource flows – and it applies equally to domestic wastewater and to solid wastes;
Discarded materials and substances do not necessarily become “waste”, as long as there is a possibility of re-use, recycling or re-incorporation into the biosphere (e.g., by composting, anaerobic digestion or other biological transformations) without causing ecological or environmental damage; but these desirable processes become more difficult or even impossible when discarded substances or materials are mixed to form a combined “waste stream”;
For most of humanity’s existence on this planet, our excreta served as nourishment for other animals, or were returned directly to the soil; providing valuable nutrients or fertiliser for agricultural or horticultural use;
This practice carried a risk of spreading faecal-borne diseases but our current knowledge of microbiology can be applied to ensure that this risk is reduced to negligible proportions;
Septic tanks and Flushing.
The widespread adoption of the relatively simple technology of the flush toilet throughout rural Ireland in the 20th century, and the building of large numbers of houses in unsewered areas, has led to a huge increase in the numbers of individual on-site wastewater treatment systems for domestic sewage and other wastewaters from houses and other buildings outside towns;
The adverse environmental effects and public health risks associated with unsuitable location and inadequate maintenance of these single house wastewater treatment systems have been well documented by local authorities and by the EPA;
These effects include surface water and groundwater pollution by faecal bacteria and sewage-derived nutrients; with consequential difficulties in complying fully with the Water Framework Directive
The principal response to this problem has been to develop a registration and inspection regime, carried out by local authorities under the supervision of the EPA, with the aim of bringing all single-house wastewater treatment systems under control, and preventing further pollution of groundwater and surface water;
Though satisfactory in other ways, this registration and inspection scheme does not consider wastewater as “waste” to be prevented, reused or recycled; and does not address the need to recover and re-use the valuable nutrients contained in domestic wastewater;
separation of different types of wastewater produced in houses. i.e., “black water” (highly contaminated with faecal micro organisms), and “grey water” (discharge from bathing, showering, clothes washing, dish-washing and other similar uses); and,
separation of urine from faeces, with urine being used as a source of nitrogen and phosphorus.
• In order to become truly sustainable in the long term, society must practice the re-use and recycling of wastewater to a much larger extent than is done at present; and source-separation of human urine is one promising technology which can be used to achieve this objective.
Source separation Toilet Swedish style
Source-separation of human urine has the added advantage of conserving and re-using phosphorus. It is not a new technology, and can be relatively easily installed, as shown by examples from Sweden and other countries.
Actions to take now.
This objective may be best achieved by an amendment to Part H of the Building Regulations; and,
A further step in the direction of resource conservation would be to encourage the more widespread adoption of modern composting toilets which do not require water for flushing.