By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – March 23, 2017 – Comment

This year’s United Nations World Water Day theme emphasizes the importance of recycling. We all know the value in recycling; the process of converting waste into reusable material. Growing up I learned to separate plastics, glass, and paper and even at an early age, I associated those actions with the act of turning the water off when brushing my teeth. Why? I did not know exactly- but I did know it had something to do with not “wasting water.” Though I felt like I was doing my part to help the environment, I did not fully understand the differences or the interconnectedness between recycling, reuse, and reclamation.

The United Nations theme focuses on the reduction in potable water use and the reuse of wastewater from homes, industries, and cities, and returning it to back to the environment in a safe way. For example, in our homes we can reuse greywater on our gardens and landscaping. In cities, we can treat and reuse wastewater for green spaces, water features, golf courses, car washes, and more. For industry and agriculture, we can treat and recycle water for cooling systems, industrial water processes, and irrigation.

Of course, the water industry is focused on managing and improving wastewater treatment and usage. At American Water, our teams are practicing water reuse at about 40 of the 200 wastewater treatment facilities that we own or operate.  Over the past 10 years, our research group has conducted 15 research projects funded by the WasteReuse Research Foundation – totaling nearly $6 million.  Our Innovation Development Process (IDP) we seek out innovations and leverage them for our customers and the water industry as a whole. Using the IDP, we have examined more than 600 technologies to date and are actively pursuing a dozen partnerships with domestic and international partners.

On a global level, most cities in developing nations do not have the adequate resources and infrastructure to address wastewater management in an efficient and sustainable way. However, with 70% of world populations predicted to be living in cities by 2050, the opportunities for exploiting resource recovery from wastewater are enormous.  In addition to the recovered water, nitrogen and phosphorus can be recovered for fertilizer; energy can be created from biogas as electricity.  Solids can be used in agriculture to improve soils.  Even trace levels of gold, silver and other precious metals can be recovered!  Makes you think twice about even flushing the toilet in the first place!

The benefits of effective wastewater treatment go far beyond the technical details of resource recovery.  Proper sanitation and wastewater treatment have been hailed as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century!  Not only have diseases like typhoid, cholera, and polio been virtually eliminated by effective wastewater treatment, but communities have also experienced economic development, and environmental sustainability; and new business opportunities and greener jobs have resulted from the implementation of stronger and more efficient wastewater programs.

The effective use of drinking water and the efficient management of wastewater resources can create a more sustainable planet and a healthier world population. On this World Water Day, March 22, let’s continue to play our part in wise water management and recognizing the many purposes water serves in our daily lives.