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wastewater treatment

‘Toilet-to-Tap’ Wastewater Recycling Takes Off as Water Supplies Shrink

wastewater treatmentRecycled wastewater has been used for decades to irrigate crops, golf courses and landscapes. Now, with water scarcity affecting growing areas globally, more communities are looking to turn treated sewage into potable water — and this creates a huge opportunity for companies including Dow Chemical that provide toilet-to-tap technology.

“Communities and companies are increasingly realizing the economic value of clean water — and that’s driving growth in Dow’s water business at two times [the rate of] the global GDP,” Dow chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris tells Bloomberg News.

In 2007, Orange County, Calif. opened the world’s largest sewage purification system to increase drinking water supplies. It currently produces 100 million gallons of potable water per day, the Orange County Register reports.

El Paso, Texas also treats its wastewater to produce potable water. There, as in Orange County, the treated wastewater is sent through an aquifer before being pumped and receiving additional cleaning.

Direct Potable Reuse

Other Texas cities are moving forward with toilet-to-tap technology as the drought continues to shrink water supplies.

Operating under a stage 5 drought, Wichita Falls, Texas, last year began recycling millions of gallons of wastewater. Unlike El Paso, Wichita Falls uses direct potable-reuse technology — that is, the treated wastewater will not be sent through an aquifer before use — as does a plant in Big Springs, Texas, which, in 2013 became the first project of its kind in the US to use direct potable reuse.

Extreme drought conditions in California are now forcing the golden state to follow Texas’ lead. Last year California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that requires state health and water officials to report by September 2016 on the feasibility of developing uniform standards for recycling wastewater for direct potable reuse.

“Toilet-to-tap or direct potable reuse is the future of potable water wherever water shortages are acute,” says Lux Research analyst Abhirabh Basu. “It is also more likely to find traction in regions where there is a combination of water shortages and limited agriculture, like Los Angeles.”

Last month the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California approved $15 million for a wastewater recycling demonstration plant. The toilet-to-tap program would serve Los Angeles County, Orange County and potentially San Bernardino County, water district COO Debra Man told NBC News.

While the facility would initially use the recycled water to recharge groundwater basins, “down the road,” it could move to direct potable reuse, the water district says.

California’s drought-stricken communities are preparing for indirect potable reuse — but treating the wastewater and pumping it into an aquifer before reusing it is a less efficient recycling method, Basu says. “As drought conditions worsen in western US and elsewhere in the world, we expect more municipalities to encourage direct potable reuse.”

The ‘Ick’ Factor

There is a major hurdle to toilet-to-tap, however, and it has nothing to do with the technology involved. It’s the “ick factor:” convincing the public that it’s safe — and doesn’t taste gross — to drink treated sewage.

As Paul Rozin, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who’s researched consumer response to toilet-to-tap programs, tells Bloomberg News: “Accepting recycled wastewater is kind of like being asked to wear Hitler’s sweater. No matter how many times you clean the sweater, you just can’t take the Hitler out of it.”

But, says Basu, in places with limited access to freshwater like Singapore and extreme drought like Texas, the ick factor isn’t a problem.

Singapore’s NEWater plant treats wastewater to drinking water standards and meets about 30 percent of the country’s water demand,” Basu says. “The best way to tackle the ick factor is to educate the public about the process and the advantage of reusing wastewater. In the long run this will prove to be a better strategy than relying on consumers to change their behavior, which has a limited effect and is more difficult to achieve.”

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12 thoughts on “‘Toilet-to-Tap’ Wastewater Recycling Takes Off as Water Supplies Shrink

  1. OK, I’m all about recycling and reducing waste generation, but this is just gross. I mean, I know it’s safe and clean. Rationally. And if you give me recycled toilet water without telling me that’s what it is, I would probably drink it and not give it a second thought… But if I know, or even think that’s what it is, there’s no way.

  2. when we use surface water one POTW’s discharge is another public water supplies intake. down stream users already get treated sewage. So why the yuck factor? no water or reuse water, choice is pretty clear(pun intended).

  3. I am so happy that finally this technology and opportunity is finally getting political support in states like Texas and California. The fact is that more than half of the US population has now moved or immigrated west of the Mississippi and it only takes looking at a map of the country to see that none of the state lines are drawn by river systems. Farmers are clear that drought conditions have only been getting more and more extreme. I worked on San Francisco’s water recycling plan 20 years ago. after the 7 year drought we had in the late 80s. We stopped the project because of the typical short-termism that our popular public opinion suffers. It is time for us to be smart, efficient and creative with all our resources!!! Thank you for this article.

  4. Using the catchy, but ridiculous “toilet to tap” branding is detrimental to us having important and grown up dialogue about the important topic of water resource management. All water is recycled to some degree. Wastewater treatment is one of the most highly regulated industries in the USA. With only 2.5% of the planet’s water consider freshwater from glaciers and underground sources, we need to be ready to adopt new conservation and resource recovery options for our future survival.

  5. Lawrence,
    I think you bring up an important point. When we pump water into an aquifer, we at least dilute what we are pumping. Continuously recycling the same water, while it is not an “Ick” issue like toilet water, we need to keep this in mind. What else is in the water that we are going to recycle and add more of the same to it each time?

  6. Stop calling it “toilet to tap” which was a childish slogan coined by fear-mongers. Orange County in California has the largest recycling water plant in the world which has great benefits to the environment and people. It’s also practically drought-proof and much cheaper and easier than desalination. California needs to stop dragging it’s feet and follow Orange County.

  7. A properly operated waste water treatment plant can produce amazingly clean water. With proper treatment that clean wastewater can be transformed into completely safe drinking water. I agree there is a “yuk” factor get past but if the process is performed and monitored properly it can, and will be a life saver.

  8. Yes- It’s great they found a way to recycle wastewater.
    And yes- this is absolutely gross that I can’t even imagine it. I think I will not drink this recycled wastewater and not only me I’m sure there will be many like me. So they should rethink it.

  9. Alice if you have ever visited Singapore, you already drank it. It is called New Water and I drank it for 9 years. No problems.

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