Water companies in England have announced an extra £10 billion over the next seven years to curb sewage spills, increasing water scarcity and increased pressure to comply with stringent environmental regulation. Against this backdrop, effective wastewater treatment has never been more important, says British Water’s Chief Executive, Lila Thompson.

Yet, rising operating costs and stricter regulations pose major challenges for wastewater treatment plant operators. Add in the high level of public and media scrutiny surrounding sewage spills and ageing infrastructure, and the unprecedented pressure the water sector is contending with.

Resilient and cost-effective technologies which address the sector’s needs and their regulatory drivers while helping to address climate change are urgently needed. But how can this be achieved?

Investment and innovation

Improving and enhancing wastewater treatment requires a combination of investment, innovation and different ways of doing things – which means the partnership between water utilities and the supply chain has never been more critical.

Effective, innovative, long-term solutions can only be delivered with a well-planned, collaborative approach to technology, installation, data and maintenance in partnership with multiple established supply chain partners.

Speaking at British Water’s recent Spring Reception at the House of Lords, Ofwat Chief Executive David Black urged the sector to step up environmental performance, improve resilience and asset health and stressed the importance of the supply chain in enabling this transformation. Regulators such as Ofwat also play a vital role in this. Economic incentives and robust legislative frameworks are critical to encourage utilities and supply chain companies to explore approaches that lead to improved wastewater treatment.

Encouragingly, Ofwat recently published its proposal to accelerate £1.6bn in PR24 investment, including work on storm overflows and increasing smart metering. This can only be effectively delivered in partnership with technology and solution providers who have early sight of projects that have achievable and consistent timeframes.

Cleaning up wastewater’s image

Achieving the transition to a circular-economy model of water treatment not only requires a shift in regulatory and organisational approach, but also depends on the support of local communities and their understanding of the collective responsibility towards sewage management.

Population growth means ‘end of the pipe’ solutions – combining physical, chemical and biological processes and operations – have become necessary to treat the high levels of wastewater entering the network. Yet, with the sector increasingly embracing the potential of nature-based solutions (NbS) in improving wastewater treatment, there is a real opportunity to engage the public.

There is however still much to be done on NbS – to clarify its definition, the range of NbS available, and where the options can best be applied. This involves the sector working together to create an engaging and compelling narrative around nature positive schemes.

The use of nature-based solutions to remove pollutants from wastewater is not a new concept. From the use of bacteria in activated sludge to biologically treating wastewater through ponds and lagoons – green wastewater solutions have been actively used for decades, if not centuries.

Meanwhile innovative approaches to applying NbS to treat wastewater are becoming more widespread, such as vertical flow treatment wetlands as seen in Shenzhen China, as well as green roofs and willow systems – such as the one in Zealand Island, Denmark, where a zero-discharge willow system has been in operation since 2017.

Resource recovery

Wastewater also contains valuable nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that can be recycled as fertiliser, in addition the water itself can be treated and reused.

With variations across countries and regions, it is estimated that globally, more than 80% of all produced wastewater is released into the environment without proper treatment.

Emerging and innovative technologies such as thermal hydrolysis, microbial fuel cells, and activated sludge are increasingly allowing water companies to tap into the technology’s large potential for resource recovery.

Becoming world leaders

While there is plenty that the UK can learn from other countries about innovative approaches to wastewater treatment – it is worth noting there is plenty of expertise in this country that is much in demand across the world.

Reflecting this, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was agreed between Egypt and British Water earlier this year that establishes a framework for bilateral cooperation on water projects for 27 governorates and the new planned cities across Egypt.

The collaborative agreement will help deliver critical transformation of water and wastewater services in Egypt.

The MOU was signed by British Water chair Dr Mark Fletcher and Dr Sayed Ismail, deputy minister for infrastructure, the Egyptian Ministry of Housing, Utilities & Urban Communities at the British Water’s International Reception in London.

Ismail said expertise from the UK water sector and supply chain was urgently needed to help Egypt’s ambitious modernisation plans on desalination, water reuse, sludge-to-energy retrieval, and investment in human capital.

Resilient processes

Wastewater treatment is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Local conditions require local solutions.

Financial resources, available land, population density, type of receiving waters, and type of industrial activity all affect the options available. Ensuring a flexible approach to meeting the required quality standards enables innovative and locally adapted solutions.

By working in collaboration with the supply chain, wastewater treatment can be made more cost-effective and energy-efficient, reduce carbon emissions to meet company sustainability goals, and recover materials that would be classified as waste in a circular economy of resources—potentially creating new revenue streams.

There has never been a better time to rethink wastewater treatment for the benefit of companies, customers and communities.