Wastewater or Water Wasted?


ü Wasting water: incompatible with sustainable development

ü Zero water: a disruptive idea

ü Circular economy: a new way to look at wastewater


Water is essential for life. And for business. Water crises is one of the top 5 global risks and more urgent than climate change. Water is also an enormous opportunity, not only for the water sector. Much progress has been made, but 663 million people still lack access to safe water. The Sustainable Development Goals recognizes the importance of water with SDG6 and others. Wasting water, as we will discuss in this article, is not just unfair, but bad business. 


22 March: World Water Day


Each year, the World Water Day highlights a theme critical to better management of our freshwater resources, and this year’s theme is “Why Wastewater?”. While wastewater is of great interest to some, many may find it less inspiring than past themes of past years like "Water and Sustainable Development" and "Water and Jobs." However, as the buzz around the circular economy has shown us, waste can be motivating! When waste is redefined and examined through a different lens - as an opportunity rather than an unfortunate, often disgusting problem - it can inspire new business models, create new jobs, and promote a clean, safe, and resilient environment.


But why waste water?


Wastewater is defined as “spent or used water with dissolved or suspended solids, discharged from homes, commercial establishments, farms, and industries.” Still today, more than 80% of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or sea without any treatment. This contaminates drinking water sources and harms ecosystems, especially when containing hazardous substances that do not easily dissipate in the environment.


Although water is a renewable resource, made accessible to us through the global water cycle, there is a finite amount of it. It is essential for human and all other planetary life and is therefore intrinsically tied to human rights, health and biodiversity. It follows therefore that managing wastewater is core to navigating sustainable development challenges.


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes a goal dedicated water and sanitation (SDG 6), and addressing challenges related to waste water plays a critical role in meeting this goal. SDG 6 evolved from the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) on water, expanding it from a focus on drinking water and sanitation to consider the entire water cycle, including wastewater. SDG 6 lays out two targets related to waste water:


Target 6.3 calls for action to “improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and increasing recycling and safe reuse globally” by 2030.


Target 6.a calls for the world to “expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies” by 2030.


Water is an essential input in all our products and processes. Water is a precious resource, tied to our economic success as well as to life itself. Water resources are far too valuable to waste. 


There is no such thing as wastewater, only water wasted


Our current model of industrial development has resulted in the irrational concept of wastewater. Businesses that drive this development therefore play a key role in reducing, managing and ultimately eliminating wastewater. This can be achieved through actions such as limiting pollutants and innovating recycling and reuse technologies.


Core principles in green design emphasize the avoidance of hazardous inputs and wasteful practices in the system from the beginning. This helps avoid harm to ecosystems and surrounding communities and avoids costly cleanup. Waste is a sign of inefficiency and should be designed out of the system, avoided altogether wherever possible.


This design for lifecycle thinking is what defines the circular economy. It ties waste and environmental damage directly to costs, inefficiencies and a loss in opportunities to have more resilient systems. As water supply and water quality present ongoing and increasing challenges to communities and corporations across the world, treating and reusing industrial wastewater is becoming an increasingly attractive option, especially for sectors that depend on large quantities of water, such as agriculture, chemicals and energy.


Companies can ‘close the loop’ for wastewater by investing in these options, making the water system more regenerative by enabling water to retain its quality and be used repeatedly in the system. This ‘reduce-reuse-retention’ approach is explored in a new report by ING, the Dutch multinational bank, which finds that while the circular economy is not able to fully eliminate water shortages, it has the potential to save 412 billion m3 of water yearly, the equivalent of 11 percent of global water demand and almost the entirety of water consumption in California. The report is very interesting because it not only shows risks and opportunities, but also the pitfalls of circular water solutions.


What can business do to stop wasting water?


The most disruptive idea however is to start targeting zero wastewater. Innovative approaches such as Design Thinking or “old” ones such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – even the new Water Footprint concept – can help us change long established concepts and “reinvent” full product systems.


Companies such as GE or Veolia offer complete “Zero Liquid Discharge” (ZLD) systems, where all wastewater is purified and recycled, leaving no discharge at the end of treatment. These systems can be adapted to can fit many operations for many different companies. Nestlé for instance has opened its first "zero water" factory in Mexico, a model it plans to replicate in its factories globally. 


Other examples include:

ü  Reduce water pollution in its operations by managing use of hazardous materials and chemicals;

ü  Reuse water use within its operations or in cooperation with other organizations (see also “industrial symbiosis” below);

ü  Ensure access to sanitation for its workers, suppliers and communities it operates in;

ü  Invest in technologies that improve water quality and reduce quantity used;

ü  Invest in green infrastructure for water treatment in facilities or communities;

ü  Explore industrial symbiosis with other companies that use water in a core region


Wastewater and sustainability


In addition to SDG 6, wastewater also plays a key role in the larger sustainable development agenda. Effectively managing wastewater is key for resilient infrastructure and sustainable industrialization, as companies learn to operate in a water-restrained world (SDG 9). Wastewater management is also essential to developing safe and sustainable cities (SDG 11), which also presents companies with new opportunities in an urbanizing world. It plays a key role as well in the sustainability of products that we consume and produce (SDG 12), in terms of reducing chemicals and waste throughout product lifecycles, which ties it closely to the principles of the circular economy.


Water flows through the heart of both the circular economy and the SDGs. Water is a valuable resource and in the circular economy, wastewater must be safely managed in order to reclaim this resource’s value. Investing in sustainable, circular models for waste water allows for both economies and ecosystems to thrive, which also means making progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.


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