The Optimistic Futurist: Benefits flow from reuse of waste water

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 6, 2012

By Francis Koster
A surprising amount of the drinking water in the United States has already been used by toilets and passed through an old sewage treatment plant upstream and back into a river. The river also gets runoff from farms and feedlots, and storm water from parking lots. To this, add new-generation bad stuff, including industrial, home cleaning and agriculture chemicals and drugs, all mixed into the human waste, making a whole new brew unknown 50 years ago.
This is the raw material that our drinking water is made from.
Many of these drinking water preparation plants are also old and do not remove all the latest generation bad stuff. Across the United States, more than 260 contaminants have been found in public tap water, and more than 140 of them have no enforceable safety limits. These include pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals. A 2008 study by the Associated Press discovered that these unregulated pharmaceuticals were found in the drinking water systems of 41 million Americans. This does not count those who get their drinking water from untested private wells, as 40 percent of North Carolinians do.
Before the mid-1800s, city people all over America had toilet buckets in their apartments, which they emptied into the streets in the morning. Cholera outbreaks created support for public waste removal systems. The first solutions were horse-drawn carts that made neighborhood rounds and collected the contents of the buckets.
When municipal water supplies began delivering fresh drinking water to apartments and homes in the late 1800s, the flush toilet became possible. Using the running water now in the homes, human waste was carried through sewer pipes to a central place by the flowing flushed water. At the central place, it was put in ponds, where living critters already in us ate the bad stuff. Over time, the goop settled into liquids and solids. The solids were used to fertilize farmers’ fields. The leftover liquids were put in a nearby river. The civil engineers of the day were taught a slogan: “The solution to pollution is dilution” — and as long as the sewage was only human waste, this was largely true. It no longer is.
We have gone from a nation whose sewage was from humans to one where we annually add millions of tons of drugs and chemicals to human sewage, which mix together and make new dangers.
One solution is to take wastewater and treat a portion of it for reuse for purposes other than drinking water. You take the waste water, clean it and use it for landscape irrigation, flushing toilets or building cooling, while lowering the need for new under-the-street plumbing or expensive large drinking water preparation plants.
One example of a success story is the headquarters building of the Port of Portland in Oregon. By including an “on-site reuse wastewater treatment plant” that put two sets of waste-water plumbing into the design of the new 200,000-square-foot building, water use was reduced by 75 percent Instead of sending all the waste to the sewage plant, the cleaner water is kept on site, where it is treated for reuse for irrigation, flushing toilets and cooling buildings.
Because of the success of this concept, the city of San Francisco has adopted it for use in their new Public Utilities Commission building, where it will save water, energy and money, and serve as a role model.
A third example is an installation at Furman University in South Carolina, where this model was selected over the “business as usual” systems based on low life-cycle costs for both energy and water.
On a personal level, one thing you can do is install a charcoal filter on your faucet, which significantly reduces the amounts of many pollutants. You can buy a charcoal filter at the hardware store.
Societies require safe air, water and food in order to survive. We need to keep the issue of safe and secure water supplies on our radar — for our sake and the sake of our children.
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Francis P. Koster, Ed. D., lives in Kannapolis. For more information, visit