Test Your Knowledge: How Well Do Clean-Water Plants Recover Valuable Resources?

Here’s a quiz: What share of water, nutrients and energy do the nation’s clean-water plants recover? How close are we to a circular water economy?

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We have come a long way since 1970. As I was entering college, an ad running frequently on TV touted a frozen pizza that came with a “toss-away pizza pan.”

Think of it. The most memorable feature of this product was not its ingredients, not its taste, but a disposable aluminum pan. Heaven forbid people should have to wash a dish. A product and an ad like that would be unthinkable today, when reuse and recycling hold such stature that “circular economy” has become a buzzword.

The Water Environment Federation is embracing the circular economy with its ReNEW Water Project (the letters N-E-W stand for nutrients, energy and water). Several years ago, WEF adopted Water Resource Recovery Facility as the generic name for what we’ve known for years as wastewater treatment plants.

Now WEF is upping the ante with the ReNEW project, which promotes resource recovery to fuel and grow a circular economy. The idea is to reduce waste by creating valuable products from what have been thought of as waste streams.

Try your hand

So, what amounts of resources are being recovered in WRRFs? The most recent data we have is from a WEF analysis completed in 2018, using information from national and state databases, publications and a utility survey, which taken together represented about 25% of U.S. municipal wastewater flow and 20% of biosolids.

See if you can guess how well the United States was doing with resource recycling. No fair peeking at the answers below until you’ve completed the quiz.

1. What percent of wastewater was being used for purposes such as irrigation and groundwater replenishment?

A. 18%

B. 3%

C. 7%

D. 21%

2. What percent of biosolids was used as fertilizer, compost or other beneficial purposes?

A. 16%

B. 51%

C. 73%

D. 34%

3. What percent of phosphorus was captured by way of land-applied biosolids, fertilizer and recycled water for irrigation?

A. 9%

B. 31%

C. 21%

D. 46%

4. What percent of nitrogen was captured by way of land-applied biosolids and recycled water for irrigation?

A. 11%

B. 22%

C. 38%

D. 6%

5. What percent of biogas was captured for heating and electricity generation? 

A. 60%

B. 41%

C. 28%

D. 73%

Elements of ReNEW

With the ReNEW project, WEF aims to create a bold, aspirational initiative to accelerate resource recovery, and so help power a circular economy. The project has two components:

Call to action. This means encouraging utilities to pursue resource recovery as a way to improve operations, manage risk, and enhance sustainability. The aim is to catalyze the capture of high-value products by helping utilities develop business cases for resource recovery.

Progress and impact reports. These will be developed periodically to track progress and spotlight the impact of utilities creating value from former waste streams.

How do you measure up?

If you want to check on how your clean-water agency is doing with resource recovery, WEF offers an Accelerating Resource Recovery Tool. It can help you gauge how you compare with other utilities of similar size. You can locate and download the tool at www.wef.org. Search on ReNEW Water Project. 

Walt Marlowe, WEF executive director, observes, “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.”

Making a difference starts with knowing where we are today. Maybe now is a good time to assess your resource recovery performance and discuss how to continuously do better.  

QUIZ ANSWERS:  1. C  |  2. B  |  3. C  |  4. A  |  5. B.


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