In his iconic novel, Les Miserables, the 19th-century author, Victor Hugo, expressed the opinion that “The history of men is reflected in the history of sewers”. It now appears that his opinion may have held some truth. While the sewers of Hugo’s era might have contained the odd apple core or wine bottle, the contents of their modern counterparts now include vast quantities of additional effluent from industrial sources, which, together with domestic waste, may contain everything from cleaning chemicals and the residue of pharmaceuticals, to polypropylene microbeads. Faced with a constantly growing demand, widespread waste water recycling has now become crucially important.
While the value of clean drinking water has been appreciated since antiquity, the parallel need for effective sanitation systems, or any form of wastewater management, received limited attention and only from certain cultures, prior to the time of Victor Hugo. In practice, the earliest evidence of homes connected to drainage systems and latrines dates back to the Mesopotamian Empire and a time between 2500- and 3500 BC. Modifications of these structures have also been found among the ruins of Ancient Egypt.
However, although they did not undertake large-scale waste water recycling, it is the Ancient Greeks who are regarded as having developed the basic principles on which modern sanitation systems would eventually be founded.
The Romans, of course, are widely known for their hydrological expertise and, in addition to public baths and aqueducts, many of which are still operational today, the more prosperous citizens of ancient Rome even had flushable toilets. Such enlightened ideas, however, were not readily adopted by other European nations, and the continent was subsequently plunged into an age of sanitary indifference that persisted from the middle ages to the industrial revolution. Even when the connection between sewage and disease was finally confirmed, the need for waste water recycling or, at least, to dispose of it more responsibly rather than continuing to contaminate ground and surface sources, was still not fully appreciated.
From around the middle of the nineteenth century, the need for humans to distance themselves further from the waste, which they now accepted could spread disease, was more widely recognised. The response was that the major European countries undertook to greatly extend their sewage systems. However, the first serious attempts to treat the effluent before consigning it back into rivers or the soil did not materialise until the early years of the 20th century, and were hampered by two world wars.
At first, waste water recycling was limited to the primary process in which solids were allowed to sediment in tanks under the action of gravity, and actually remained the sole form of treatment practices in the United States until the Clean Water Act of 1972 made it mandatory to provide secondary treatment. The second-stage treatment, subsequently adopted, involved the breakdown of organic materials to form carbon dioxide and water as a result of bacterial action.
Over the decades that followed, a combination of rapid population growth and increased demands from industry and, in particular, from agriculture, have seen waste water recycling evolve from being a sensible option, to becoming a dire necessity. In the twenty-first century, it is now widely seen as crucial to both future development and the environment.
On the local front, the recent severe drought in the Western Cape has only served to emphasise the need to conserve our reserves, and to reclaim as much as possible of that which has already been used. This realisation has seen the responsibility for such conservative measures shift from being predominately that of local municipalities, to one that must now be shared by the consumer.
Given strict laws governing the disposal of industrial effluents, manufacturers have been forced to clean up their act. However, waste water recycling offers a means to reduce operating costs. Thus, rather than simply purifying wastewater and disposing of it, many factories now reuse the treated effluent wherever possible.
What makes sound economic sense for the industrial consumer is just as valuable to domestic users. While some may simply be collecting and reusing rainwater for cleaning and irrigation, others are installing systems to collect, treat, and repurpose the waste from washing machines, baths, and even toilets. Optionally, the treatment provided by these domestic systems may even be extended in order to provide water suitable for drinking.
Water is life, and it is becoming scarce. Talk to Watericon about waste water recycling today.