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Home » Water » We must expand water’s role in the circular economy

Walt Marlowe

Executive Director, Water Environment Federation

With precious water resources increasingly stressed by the climate crisis, population growth and pollution, we need to urgently manage water in a way that reflects the limited supply and ensures a sustainable future.

Water is a finite resource – the amount of water on the planet stays the same and we can’t make more.

That means quickly expanding water’s role in the circular economy, a model that reduces the single use of materials, redesigns products to be less resource intensive and recaptures “waste” to reuse in another way.

To accelerate this transition, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) launched the ReNEW Water Project, which provides tools and roadmaps for recovery of resources from water. The project also tracks how much North American utilities are recycling water, capturing useful nutrients from the water and generating renewable energy through the treatment process.

Following nature’s example

Nature has shown the way. It doesn’t just use water once and throw it away. Nor can we. That is why more water is being cleaned and recycled for purposes such as irrigation of agriculture and filling reservoirs. Wastewater also is being purified to drinking water standards and sent directly into the public supply. More projects like this are launching, for example in Los Angeles, which aims to recycle all its wastewater by 2035.

Nature has shown the way. It doesn’t just use water once and throw it away. Nor can we.

Wastewater actually contains the valuable elements of nitrogen and phosphorus. More utilities are extracting these nutrients to turn them into commercial products such as fertiliser, which additionally leads to cleaner waterways downstream.

This happens at Chicago’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant, the world’s largest nutrient recovery facility. Biosolids are another valuable by-product left over after wastewater treatment. Rich in nutrients and carbon, they are now used to fertilise farms and gardens and to revitalise soils.

Building a sustainable future

We are also working to help the water industry do more to combat the climate crisis. Ongoing initiatives include improving energy efficiency, installing waste-to-energy processes such as biogas production and placing solar panels on facilities. Today, some water utilities are even producing more renewable energy than required for facility operations, such as East Bay Municipal Utility District in California.

Bringing water fully into the circular economy through resource recovery certainly requires focused effort, committed action and significant financial investment. WEF and its members will continue to lead this charge in the water sector. However, we all must use our voices to support this change at our organisations and in our communities. A sustainable water future depends on it.

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