A future in which water is widely reused and recycled is not as fanciful as it might sound. We can relieve pressure on water-stressed areas by recycling wastewater – and in some places this is already happening. The barrier is often people’s perceptions – collectively, we need to overcome the ‘yuck’ factor that makes us uncomfortable with the idea.
The people of Toowoomba, Queensland, voted against using recycled water for drinking despite major drought conditions. Why do people oppose measures like this that make practical sense and are perfectly safe? This is the ‘yuck’ factor at work. As an industry we may underestimate the time taken to change these deeply ingrained attitudes.
However, in Southern California, a University of California, Riverside researcher decided to test the concept. This state is already moving towards greater re-use of wastewater. They did a taste test comparing recycled water, tap water and bottled water and found it was liked better than tap water (and almost as much as bottled water).
The term ‘sewer mining’ doesn’t help. If someone offered you a glass of ‘sewer-mined water’, you would probably find it difficult not to think of the water as ‘dirty’ even if you knew that it was clean, and safe to drink.
This is why Singapore has branded its sewer-mined and recycled water as NEWater – water that is as good as new. Sewage treatment plants were renamed ‘water reclamation plants’ and sewage or wastewater became ‘used water’, to draw parallels with the natural water cycle.
This rebranding was part of an education and information campaign to win over public opinion. It has enabled NEWater to expand to a scale where, in the long term, it will be able to meet half of Singapore’s water demand.
Closer to home, Anglian Water now refers to wastewater services as ‘Water Recycling’.