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’.
Read more about the Future of Water
Research has shown that educating people on the benefits of recycled water and rebranding it to remove associations with things people find disgusting – such as sewers – can help overcome the ‘yuck’ factor. However, disgust is such a deeply ingrained response that we may need to enlist the help of psychology.
If the ‘yuck’ factor can be overcome, could we make even better use of wastewater as all forms of water become increasingly scarce and valuable? Could we all become prosumers, paid for our waste?
Having someone pay you for your waste may seem far-fetched but there are already examples of demand for the recycled liquid and solid products of sewer mining. In Sydney, Pennant Hills Golf Club produces up 100 million litres of recycled water for irrigation in its water reclamation plant – having previously relied on drinking water.
A world in which we all happily drink recycled wastewater may be some way away, but there is plenty we could do now to move in this direction – by making better use of greywater, for example. The industry is making progress in this area. In the UK and elsewhere, we are increasingly separating foul sewers and surface water drainage at a local authority level – primarily to avoid flooding. However, we need to go further: separating this water, recognising its value and reusing it.
Retrofitting individual properties with systems to separate wastewater, harvest rainwater and use greywater for irrigation remains a bigger challenge for countries such as the UK. Yet if the industry can help move us all a little further down the path towards embracing recycled water, it may just be the first step towards overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor.
Nikki van Dijk: Associate, Climate Resilience