Wastewater Zero: Going beyond compliance to zero
In the era of climate change and growing concerns about long-term global water security, policymakers, businesses, and the general public are increasingly aware of the need for sustainable, comprehensive solutions to wastewater treatment.
Wastewater pollution from industrial use negatively impacts biodiversity and freshwater availability while contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and impeding adaptation to climate change.
This in turn causes negative downstream effects to both the economy and public health, making it a top priority when it comes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined by the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
To advance the SDGs, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has proposed the “Wastewater Zero” initiative, which outlines the goal and framework for businesses to eliminate the negative impacts associated with the release of wastewater, and effectively convert wastewater from a negative externality into a valuable resource.
Reaching the goal of Wastewater Zero requires a multi-pronged approach from policy leaders, technology innovation, and businesses. It will require rethinking the way we manage wastewater and integrating new solutions, such as Aquacycl’s innovative BioElectrochemical Treatment Technology (BETT) to address water quality, scarcity and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Let's explore the benefits of achieving Wastewater Zero, its challenges and how building onsite wastewater treatment can help address these issues and bring businesses closer to the goal of Wastewater Zero.
What is Wastewater Zero?
The Wastewater Zero Commitment is an initiative that calls for business to release no hazardous substances into the environment by treating all generated wastewater with a system that addresses the following criteria:
- Wastewater must have no negative impact on the receiving body of water, as defined based on science-based target setting.
- Systems must be designed to increase the proportion of on-site reused and recycled water to replace freshwater withdrawals in water-scarce areas.
- Treatment processes must reduce GHG emissions and energy requirements where feasible.
The Wastewater Zero Commitment is an optional but vital way that companies can demonstrate leadership in tackling the major global challenge of water quality, contribute to implementation of sustainable development goals, align wastewater actions with climate, water, and biodiversity targets, and connect with partners active in this space.
Wastewater Zero encourages all companies to join and demonstrate leadership in reducing the impact of their wastewater on the environment, economy, and global water security. The official Wastewater Zero Commitment sets a deadline of 2030 for businesses to achieve their Wastewater Zero targets.
Given that wastewater treatment challenges vary across industries and geographic locations, Wastewater Zero requires businesses, utilities and municipalities to collaborate at the industrial and water basin level to establish transparent mechanisms and a common vision for monitoring progress of action on wastewater.
Wastewater is a big problem. Some of the facts and figures about the current state of wastewater are:
- According to the United Nations World Water Assessment Programme, 80 percent of wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment.
- The SDG 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation in 2023 stated that the world is off track to achieve its SDG 6 targets.
- The impacts can be massive. According to the World Bank, in regions downstream from polluted rivers, GDP growth is lowered by a third.
- The World Resources Institute estimated that reducing pollution from industrial wastewater costs roughly $87.4 billion USD annually.
- Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) reported in 2020 that only 10 percent of surveyed companies report risks linked to their water pollution and only 12 percent have set pollution-related targets.
The 2020 Wastewater Zero report from the WBCSD laid out the target zero liquid discharge goal for 2030 and created the Wastewater Zero Commitment to spur action across the global business community towards this goal.
Benefits of Wastewater Zero on the Environment
Reduced environmental impact is among the chief benefits of targeting Wastewater Zero. This includes the health of the local environment as well as the global effects of climate change.
Depending on its source and contaminants, wastewater poses serious risks to biodiversity, fisheries, habitats, recreational opportunities, and human health.
The most harmful wastewater contaminants include the following:
- Decaying organic matter, which consumes dissolved oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other aquatic organisms
- Excessive nutrients like phosphorous and ammonia, which can cause eutrophication, an overgrowth of plant life which alters habitat and affects biodiversity
- Toxic chlorine compounds that kill aquatic invertebrates, algae, and fish
- Bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that make water recreation and consumption of shellfish unsafe for humans
- Heavy metals that bioaccumulate, affecting aquatic species and making fish unsafe to eat
Collective efforts towards Wastewater Zero will reduce or eliminate the release of these contaminants through the multifaceted zero liquid discharge treatment methods, ultimately leading to healthier habitats, improved biodiversity, and safer water for a variety of human usage.
Additionally, in terms of climate change, reducing the GHG emissions associated with traditional or non-existent wastewater treatment, combined with lower energy usage during the treatment process, brings the global business community closer to the goal of net-zero carbon emissions and reduction in the overall impact of global warming. Wastewater consumes massive amounts of energy to treat, and sludge breaks down into methane, which is many times more potent than CO2.
Today, water and wastewater treatment and distribution accounts for 4-5% of global GHG emissions, of which the majority is related to wastewater treatment, and this doesn’t even account for the 80% of untreated wastewater. As we reduce the proportion of untreated wastewater discharge, we need to bring in low-carbon technologies.
Benefits to Business from Wastewater Zero
Achieving Wastewater Zero can provide multiple benefits that go beyond the environment to mitigating risks and providing business and community value. For businesses that are interested in committing to Wastewater Zero, some of the benefits that can be realized are below.
One of the most attractive benefits of moving towards zero wastewater is the reduced risk of non-compliance. As we’ve outlined before, the consequences of being repeatedly out of compliance can involve prison in extreme cases. But even in more common scenarios, putting your company in a position to accrue fines and unwanted attention for regulators or the public can be catastrophic. Moving towards wastewater zero will substantially reduce these risks.
Reduced water usage
Reducing freshwater use can reduce risks associated with water scarce areas, as well as reduce operating costs by reusing and recycling their water. Lower demand means lower costs associated with freshwater intake. This varies by location, as some municipalities may require business to return water to the municipality after treatment. With that said, in many cases, internally recycling wastewater within an industrial process reduces overall freshwater usage, potentially reducing water costs.
Staying ahead of regulators
As the threat of water scarcity and global climate change grows, governments are likely to increase regulations on businesses in terms of how much pollution is allowed. While Wastewater Zero is a voluntary commitment, not a regulation, companies who implement steps towards Wastewater Zero will be ahead of the curve when it comes to regulation. This may provide future edge against firms that put off improvements to wastewater systems and must catch up, potentially under different economic circumstances or financial penalties, as pollution regulations become more stringent.
It’s also worth noting that compliance is a moving target, as things like permit compliance can change at any time, potentially exposing you to fines, litigation or worse.
Improved local economy and public perception
Businesses are hyper-aware of both the positive and negative impacts that their facilities can have on the local economy and environment. By minimizing negative impacts, such as wastewater, they will continue to be perceived as an important and positive part of the community. Improving wastewater discharge quality, or implementing Wastewater Zero guidelines provides clear leadership and commitment to the health of the community and nearby businesses.
Appeal to conscious consumers
With a growing concern among consumers for sustainable products, businesses on the cutting edge of sustainable initiatives like Wastewater Zero gain an advantage by highlighting their commitments and achievements to addressing water quality and water scarcity. This may lead to consumers working with or purchasing from firms known and acknowledged for their SDG commitments.
What are the challenges of trying to achieve wastewater zero?
Wastewater Zero is not without its challenges. Chief among them is regulatory challenges, as many countries, cities and states don’t allow onsite reuse and recycling or sharing between industrial users. This could be due to a variety of reasons, including ensuring water quality and revenue loss. A related challenge is whether there are enough uses for the recycled water. Even if it is treated to potable standards, industries like food and beverage manufacturing do not allow the treated water to be reused in product-contact applications or in the product. This means there may not be enough applications for reusing the treated water.
Another challenge is the tradeoff between treatment quality and GHG emissions. Higher quality water means higher energy consumption to remove the pollutants. This is where companies need to consider where the treated water is being used, and what quality is required for that usage.
Companies should understand that achieving a full 100 percent zero liquid discharge is incredibly challenging, but that does not negate the benefit of striving towards this goal. Incremental gains towards complete zero liquid discharge become increasingly energy intensive, and require a more systematic approach.
Depending on how the water is being used within the facility, a company will need multiple technologies to reach necessary water quality levels and ultimately achieving Wastewater Zero. By separating high strength wastewater, which can be one of the most challenging and energy-intensive streams, the remaining flow is easier to treat with conventional treatment and will require lower energy. Treating the high-strength, low volume streams with the Aquacycl BETT system offers one of the best approaches to getting as close to zero liquid discharge as possible while maintaining the low GHG emissions called for in the Wastewater Zero commitment.
BETT is able to take the high-strength wastewater stream and remove the bulk of organic carbon, which then can be combined with the low-strength stream for further treatment enabling onsite reuse.
Since the system utilizes naturally-occurring bacteria housed in a microbial fuel cell, the BETT system is able to generate electricity for remote monitoring without the production of methane. This means lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower energy expenditure, and lower treatment costs, all with greater control of your wastewater treatment.
How to get the most from high-strength wastewater treatment
If you operate a facility such as a food and beverage plant that produces high strength wastewater and are interested in whether a BETT system can improve your current wastewater management, you can schedule a consul with us to determine how Aquacycl can bring you closer towards your Zero Wastewater goals.