Creative Use of Wastewater Is Key to Quenching Global Thirst
Parched cities and regions across the globe are using sewage effluent and other wastewater in creative ways to augment drinking water, but 4 billion people still do not have adequate supplies, and that number will rise in coming decades.
Wildlife, rivers and ecosystems are also being decimated by the ceaseless quest for new water and disposal of waste. Changing human behavior and redoubling use of alternatives are critical to breaking that cycle.
Those are the conclusions of a sweeping review entitled Taking the ‘waste’ out of wastewater for human water security and ecosystem sustainability, in a special Aug. 10 issue of the journal Science.
“This is the only path forward to provide water for humans as well as for ecosystems,” said lead author Stanley Grant, a UC Irvine civil & environmental engineering professor who specializes in water quality. “We need to focus on improving the productivity and value of existing supplies, which basically means getting more out of a glass of water.”
From Fountain Valley, Calif., and Melbourne, Australia, to Israel and Brazil, the researchers found that homeowners and major utilities are capturing liquid sewage, highway runoff, household laundry water and rainfall. In some cases, alternative sources are a major contributor to replenishing pristine water. Elsewhere they are a drop in the bucket.
The paper describes three emerging methods of addressing shortages: substituting high-quality water with lower-quality water where appropriate, creating drinking water from wastewater, and reducing leaks and the volume needed for basic services. Key examples include:
Substitution: Hong Kong provides seawater for toilet flushing to 80 percent of its 7 million residents. Its international airport uses seawater and treated gray water from sinks and aircraft washing for toilets and other demands, slashing the need for drinking water by half.
Regeneration: Orange County, Calif., adds highly treated wastewater back to local groundwater, providing about 20 percent of what’s needed to maintain the aquifer for 2 million residents. Windhoek, Namibia—in southern Africa—has recycled wastewater back into the water system since the 1960s. Such programs are far preferable to piping water over long distances, the paper’s authors argue, reducing energy costs, pollution and risks from natural disasters and acts of terrorism. Harvesting wastewater is also cheaper and more environmentally friendly than desalination, they found.
Reduction: Widespread pipeline leaks and poor accounting mean that more than half of all drinking water is lost in the developing world. The World Bank estimates that if just 25 percent of this loss was stemmed, 90 million more people could have drinking water.
In addition to new methods, transforming policies and attitudes is important. Historically, governments have built dams, lengthy water lines and other infrastructure. Recently, New York City officials considered building an $8 billion treatment plant when farming and housing developments threatened reservoir quality. But instead, they spent $1 billion buying land and restoring habitat as a buffer against the polluters.
Altering individual habits could be tougher. Turfgrass still consumes nearly three-quarters of residential drinking water in arid areas of the southwestern U.S. Homeowners may eventually have no choice but to replace lawns with drought-friendly landscapes. Engineered wetlands and other biofilters that capture storm water runoff are also part of the solution.
“These complementary options make the most of scarce freshwater resources, serve the varying water needs of both developed and developing countries and confer a variety of environmental benefits,” the researchers conclude. “Their widespread adoption will require changing how freshwater is sourced, used, managed and priced.”
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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