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Developing wastewater’s circular economy: How do we create a market?

February 09, 2023

By Arthur Umble

Regulatory oversight is critical to support markets for reclaimed materials. But we need to streamline the process in our climate change fight.

Do you watch home improvement shows? If so, how often do they salvage that 100-year-old hardwood floor or reimagine shiplap into something “rustic yet modern”?

It’s an oversimplification to say that those shows are the roadmap to a circular economy. But they are a great example—and a look at our future. Why? Because we must change the way we live and the way we consume.

Those reality TV shows embrace the idea that something “new” isn’t always better. In fact, something that’s reused, recycled, or reclaimed is often much better—for the Earth and our future. That’s the bottom line when it comes to a circular economy.

Whether in a home remodeling or commercial project, reusing materials is popular—and a good example of the circular economy.

In previous blogs, I’ve written about the importance of wastewater’s circular economy to fight climate change, real-life ways we can pay for it, and how we can gain public acceptance for a circular economy.

However, without viable markets for the items in a circular economy, there won’t be a circular economy. And we’ll still be here in 5, 10, or 20 years talking about the same problems we have now.

And we can’t wait 20 years.

Regulatory oversight is critical

In the US, we have little consistent policy or regulatory oversight of recycled product quality and standards. It’s a barrier in all avenues of recycling—from your curbside container to what our team is working on: Trying to pull the valuable elements from wastewater.

Without policy or oversight, the value of the product is often reduced. That hurts the market value—and maybe the market never develops. Without viable markets, the incentives to reclaim or reuse fall away. And we’re back to square one.

The European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) are ahead of the US in creating appropriate and effective oversight. They have more regulatory frameworks for their supply chain, though challenges remain in creating consistency across the many agencies overseeing various elements of the value supply chain. Here in the US, we have a lot of work to do to make a circular economy second nature to all of us.

Of course, what works in the EU or UK won’t necessarily work the same way in North America, but it gives us a model. For example, the EU has adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan, which encompasses reimagined product design, reverse logistics, and waste management.

The circular economy, including recycling products from wastewater, is a moneymaker.

There’s also change underway on a political level. Recently, the residents of Zurich, Switzerland voted to include the circular economy in the canton’s constitution. The constitution will include reference to “considerate treatment of resources, materials, and goods, as well as the closing of materials loops.”

Action plans and politics aside, the point is the circular economy and its influence on mitigating the impacts of climate change and the global future is front and center. In Europe, they realized what they do in one country impacts the other countries. They share many common borders, and they have a lot of people packed into relatively small spaces. The EU had to get control of things—pollution, recycling, reuse, and the circular economy.

I’ll be honest, getting that kind of change in our communities, states, and across the US is a huge undertaking. And I don’t think we’ll see the frameworks in place from a policy and regulatory perspective for another decade.

Because we’re talking about a 10-year runway for effective regulatory oversight to develop, we need an additional approach.

We’re also seeing that climate change, in and of itself, is a driver for the change we need to see.

Regulatory oversight isn’t everything

So, that takes us to what drives much of the decision-making in the US—the capitalist system. Can I make money from it? And the answer is simple: Yes. The circular economy, including recycling products from wastewater, is a moneymaker.

It’s part of the reason the Stantec Institute for Applied Science, Technology & Policy exists. It’s our objective to demonstrate how these climate change mitigative solutions are not just technically available but achievable at any scale. They do work.

Two projects for Metro Water Recovery in Denver, Colorado—a leading, progressive utility—are great examples of ways to save money and offset expenses for operations, which is basically making money.

First, the Robert W. Hite Treatment Facility removes phosphorus from the wastewater effluent before releasing it into the South Platte River as it runs through Denver. The process removes more than 90% of the wastewater’s phosphorus to comply with stringent requirements. More than 95% of that phosphorus removed from the wastewater is sequestered in the biosolids and in struvite, a phosphate mineral that can be reused as a slow-release fertilizer for agriculture.

The utility has taken something that’s a detriment to water quality—and a maintenance nuisance—and turned it into a resource of potential value. Bottom line: It’s better for the local waterways and the utility can offset expenses when marketing this valuable product—a product that doesn’t have to be mined elsewhere. This is the circular economy. 

Secondly, our team worked with Metro Water Recovery on a heat recovery project for heating its campus buildings. In this case, though not a moneymaker per se, it is a cost-saver. Using heat-pump technology, Metro recovers heat from the treated effluent and heats entire buildings. Also, by reducing the heat in the treated effluent, the facility’s discharge is more protective of aquatic ecosystems in the South Platte River that are sensitive to temperature.

There are other examples. One of my favorites is using algae to transform wastewater into the soles of running shoes. It’s happening right now via technology developed by CLEARAS Water Recovery in Missoula, Montana. It’s a complete transformation from the product that was disposed of—the municipal wastewater—and into something new, useful, and valuable.

The point of the circular economy is its influence on mitigating the impacts of climate change. Wastewater’s role in the circular economy plays a key role in our future. (Architect: Harbour Resource Partners Limited Partnership)

We’re also seeing that climate change, in and of itself, is a driver for the change we need to see. How so? Everybody is looking for ways to reduce emissions. In a wastewater treatment plant, we have a lot of indirect emissions coming from the electricity that’s produced to drive the plant. We also have fugitive emissions from the methane we produce and those that come from the processes, most notably in the form of nitrous oxide and other noxious gasses.

If we can recover those, along with other carbon dioxide components, we have a carbon sequestration opportunity. The utility can get credits. That’s another way forward when we think about climate change, the circular economy, and developing a market—or at least creating cost reductions.

And let’s not forget that all the technologies that support the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence—can truly accelerate a global transition to a more circular economy. We’re not “doing business as usual,” so it’s time to look at how that impacts our utilities—for the better.

The future is circular

In the title for this blog, we asked this question about the circular economy for wastewater: How do we create a market? It’s essential to changing our future for the better. To get there, we need better regulatory oversight that will help create true value for the products produced.

We’ve been here before. Back in the 1970s, the Clean Water Act came about because rivers were catching on fire. Our backs were against the wall and things changed. We do not yet have our backs against the wall on climate change, but we’re getting close. If we think and act using these circular concepts, we are truly looking at environmental restoration and protection in a new and better way.

Something new isn’t always better. Generally, we already have all the raw materials we need. Let’s take what’s “old” and repurpose it. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll have a reality TV show that’s set inside a wastewater treatment plant—or a water resource recovery facility, which is what they really are. I might be in the minority, but that would be must-see-TV for me.

  • Arthur Umble

    As the lead for Stantec's Institute for Applied Science, Technology & Policy, Arthur’s position involves developing strategies and providing solutions for complex wastewater treatment challenges.

    Contact Arthur
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