According to the EPA, 34 billion gallons of wastewater is processed in the United States every single day.
Sewage waste — contaminated with human pathogens, pharmaceutical drugs, illegal substances and other toxic materials — has an enormous impact on the environment and human health. Infrastructure in the U.S. is often not equipped to handle the amount of waste produced, and processing can be expensive and inefficient.
But lots of innovation in the sector recently promises to improve the efficiency of waste handling and leave behind less of a negative footprint as new alternative technologies — improved processing procedures, advanced monitoring and repurposed waste-to-energy schematics, among others — roll out into the mainstream.
1. Green Infrastructure
Older cities and urban areas throughout the northeastern United States face significant issues when it comes to stormwater. Most municipalities employ combined sewer systems, using the same pipes for domestic and industrial waste. When these areas receive unusual amounts of rainfall, the systems flood and release raw sewage.
Green infrastructure first became a popular concept in the Clean Water Act. The historic document defines green infrastructure as “the use of plant or soil systems, permeable pavement or landscaping to store, infiltrate or evapotranspirate stormwater and reduce flows to sewer systems.”
Nature is an expert at handling unexpected amounts of rainfall. Green infrastructure can be a cost-effect method of dealing with sewage waste. Increasing porous surfaces in urban areas, creating rain gardens and utilizing rain barrels can all reduce the pressure on wastewater plants and prevent toxic runoff.
Biosolids, or waste recovered from sewage and used in agriculture, is not a new concept. However, one company out of Canada is working on a new technology that can isolate phosphorus and ammonia from treatment plants to create fertilizer pellets.
The concentration of fertilizer pellets is more easily absorbed by plants, decreasing the amount of agricultural water pollution from runoff. It may also be a more sustainable solution to phosphorus harvested from rock, which is experiencing supply shortages.
Unlimited potential exists for waste management to expand the composting market. Much municipal waste, from food scraps to sewage sludge, has the potential to make great compost.
Unlike backyard composting, professional services can handle human waste. The process of composting can break down pathogens and other contaminants. It can also reduce the concentration of pesticides, phthalates and PCBs, substances known to bioaccumulate in fish.
4. 5G Fiber Installment
Utility companies in the UK came together recently to promote a new system that would utilize 5G technology to provide real-time data on wastewater conditions. The Fiber in the Sewers (FiS) program will improve older sewage systems into a more efficient operation.
Installing telecommunication technology in the pipes is an innovative solution to better monitoring current flow rates and foresee infrastructure issues.
5. Anaerobic Digestion
Anaerobic digestion is a biological process that uses microorganisms to break down materials without oxygen. Because processing waste through this process creates a higher proportion of methane, it’s often required in the biogas and biofertilizer industry. Research conducted by NC State is also investigating the potential of converting animal waste into electricity.
One of the main challenges of sewage is the sheer quantity of waste. Anaerobic digestion can reduce sewage sludge by half by breaking down organic material. Decreasing the volume reduces the post-treatment process of sludge, cutting down on the amount of energy required, and improving efficiency.
Rethinking Sewage Waste With Technology
Approximately 860 billion gallons of sewage waste makes its way into the environment every year, untreated. From residential wastewater management systems to New York City sewers, people everywhere must work to combat waste.
Aging infrastructure and a lack of innovation has stalled wastewater plants and sewage treatment centers from becoming more sustainable. As alternative technologies arise, countries, states and local municipalities will have the opportunity to improve what happens to their waste. Repurposing waste for biogas and fertilizer, utilizing green infrastructure, installing real-time data technology and composting will all play a role in improving the efficiency of waste management.