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A Circular Economy: The Future of (Waste)Water

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Wastewater is not a very appealing word. What do you imagine when you think of waste? It probably isn't pretty. Wastewater is the common term the public has used for years to describe the combination of water that has been used in homes, businesses, and storm sewer systems throughout a municipality. Is it "waste" because the water goes down the drain? Is it "waste" because the water might be mixed with dish soap from your kitchen sink? Is it really "waste" at the end of the day?

Our country is at a tipping point. The lack of water is creating droughts in communities and contamination issues affecting our drinking water are too common. It is time for a shift in perspective of our water resources. How do we change our mindset of wastewater? How do our municipalities shift from operating water plants in the perspective of the 1900's into the current century?

Treatment plants are built around the needs of a community and typically only last 40 to 50 years before they require significant maintenance, upgrades to infrastructure, and new equipment. (, wastewater infrastructure). Although water regulations and requirements change over the lifespan of treatment plant, a significant number of facilities are essentially operating with a playbook from the 19th century. Whether you are flushing your toilet or washing your car, the water ends up at the treatment plant.

How does a traditional plant operate?

Wastewater flows into a plant where it goes through a series of mechanical and/or chemical processes to clean the water.

  1. Screening

  2. Grit removal

  3. Primary clarification

At this point, the raw sludge is separated from the water. Raw sludge is moved to digesters, solids dewatering, and drying operations. The water moves through the additional process:

  • Aeration

  • Secondary clarification

  • Chlorine contact or UV disinfection

Once the water has been through the treatment process, the final effluent is usually discharged to receiving waters. Receiving waters can be a stream, river, lake, or other body of water. In the past century, this was an acceptable plan for treatment. Water was plentiful and easily available. Regulations were also very different, and technology was not nearly as advanced. Is this the most efficient and conservative way to handle our water? What if instead of discharging the effluent, there was an opportunity to use the treated water efficiently and thoughtfully?

In a recent report from American Water Works Association (AWWA) Water2050 Economic Think Tank, several questions were posed as we look at the future of water. "As we approach 2050, the role of the water utility will be reimagined in a way that best addresses the challenges and opportunities of the future."

  • Does the water community need to expand to offer other services and/or provide them in a different way?

  • Will water infrastructure continue to be the key economic driver in the water community?

  • What impacts will the movement toward a circular water economy have on water supply and water infrastructure financing in the future?

  • Will the utility model evolve while maintaining focus on the core mission of protecting public health and the environment?

  • Do fiscal, monetary, and trade policies recognize the role of water resources and their impact on economic growth, both for public water services and other forms of water use?

Embracing a circular economy may be a completely new concept for some water treatment plants. Changing a historic mindset, getting buy-in from the community, and securing the funding to make a circular economy are just a few hurdles documented in the economic think tank.

Paul Nygaard, President of ICS Group shared his perspective on the possibility of a circular economy and what the future of wastewater looks like.

"With the impacts from the changing environment on the global water supply, the wastewater management community needs to stop looking at wastewater as 'waste' and more as a natural resource that can be recovered and reused, no different than how we recycle paper or aluminum cans."

"The continuing reduction in global water supply will likely impact the ability of municipalities to provide a suitable water supply for manufacturing, such as food and consumer goods. If adequate water supplies are not available, this will create challenges for municipalities to maintain their economic base due to lost tax base, employment opportunities and population base."

"Technologies are currently available to achieve the closed-loop reuse of wastewater. Communities such Orange County, California have been recycling wastewater since the mid-1970’s (having become the world’s largest water reclamation plant.) From an economic standpoint, this has been more cost-effective and provides the community with a smaller, local, and better controlled source of water. The technologies are available to accomplish this. What needs to happen is a mentality shift away from the 'status-quo thinking' of wastewater management to a modern mentality of water management and reuse."

If your community and municipality is ready for shift in mindset, please reach out to our team to learn about efficient water management and reuse technologies.



Infrastructure Report Card. Wastewater Infrastructure. Wastewater Infrastructure | ASCE's 2021 Infrastructure Report Card

Water2050. AWWA. Economic Think Tank. Water-2050-Economics-Report.pdf (

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