Reduce, Reuse, Re-water-cycle

Today’s blog is by Laurie Loftin, program specialist in ACC Water Conservation Office

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This delightful alliteration reminds us of alternative ways to lighten the load in our landfills. But can this jingle apply anywhere else? Can we broaden the breadth of the 3 R’s to embrace our waters? Perhaps a “reduce, reuse, re-water-cycle” could become an updated slogan. Let’s take a look at how to adapt these concepts to care for a vital resource.

Reduce: The first “R” is easy to understand and accomplish. Turn off the water when brushing your teeth, find and repair leaks, or trim your meat consumption and you easily reduce your water footprint.  When we are in the habit of using less water, we are better prepared to handle the inevitable dip in our water supply. Reducing demand on reservoirs and other sources allows us to save this liquid gold for the non-rainy days of drought.

Reuse: Pollution, proximity, and drought are a few of the variables affecting our ability to easily access water. As our world population grows, our water resources remain the same. But is it possible there is another source of water we are overlooking?

There is. Sort of.  What we currently refer to as wastewater has the potential to be reused, essentially allowing us to find a “hidden” reservoir.  Reusing wastewater is not a new idea. In fact, March 22 marks World Water Day, an annual event coordinated by UN-Water. The date celebrates water and highlights a specific issue related to tackling the world’s growing water crisis. For 2017 the theme is “Why Waste Water?,” with a focus on the many applications for wastewater reuse.

According to UN-Water, “globally, over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused.”¹  If this water is treated and safely managed, it could offer an affordable supply of water, particularly in developing countries with limited access to water. Improved sanitation means better health, which leads to increased productivity and a positive economic impact that far outweighs the initial cost of wastewater treatment.

The idea is not a pipe dream.  Already cities across America are discovering ways to reuse water. Purple pipes allow access to treated water approved for the irrigation of golf courses and agriculture. The Waterhub at Emory University in Atlanta, GA reuses water to supply nearly 40% of the school’s non-potable needs. Breweries in CA and WA use treated wastewater to brew craft beers. Municipalities are beginning to investigate and plan for reservoirs that receive piped effluent. The many possibilities for reuse water in agriculture, energy production, and reservoir replenishment are intriguing and worth exploring.

Re-water-cycle: Reuse and recycle appear to be similar, but if we connect the terms to water, there is a clear distinction. Reuse involves imagining creative ways to reuse our wastewater.

Recycled water is the never-ending cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.  We can also think of water as being recycled when added to soft drinks, consumed in our bodies, and absorbed into our food crops.  The recycling of water is a good and necessary phenomenon.  However, water recycling is a double-edged sword.  During this revolution water can leave one community and move to another.  When water vapor blows from one state to another or transported away in a plastic soda bottle or cucumber,  the result is a water loss in one area and a water gain found in another.

A second way H2O recycles is during the “urban water cycle“.  Water is removed from a point of supply and taken to a drinking water treatment plant to be transformed to drinking water quality. The clean liquid flows through pipes to people’s homes and businesses. The water is used and flushed into sewer pipes to make its way to a water reclamation facility. The wastewater is treated and returned to the source, which flows to the next community to be pulled and turned into drinking water.  This happens again and again.

As presented, the 3 Rs are easily applicable to water.  The next question is whether or not others will agree.

When I speak of water reuse or recycling, listeners often wrinkle their noses in a display of disgust.  Understandably, the word “wastewater” tends to have negative preconceptions associated with it.  But if you are familiar with the treatment operations at water reclamation facilities, you know filtration equipment removes trash, solids, and inorganic compounds from the influent.  Microorganisms handle the removal of phosphorus, nitrates, and other undesirable elements.  Ultraviolet rays provide an additional layer of disinfection.  The remaining end product is typically cleaner than the source water it is added back to.  Any of the ickiness factor one links with the idea of wastewater reuse washes away during treatment.

If you go deeper, we can imagine the places our water may have been before it is in our drinking glass.  The water molecule you shower with may have once been inside a rabbit.  Your coffee may contain water that percolated down through someone’s septic drainfield.  Water has been recycled and reused from the dawn of time.  When it is properly treated, we have very little fear of becoming ill as a result of reusing these well-traveled molecules.

The point is, we already practice the 3 Rs in relation to water without thinking about it.  We must continue to reduce our demands on the water supply.  It is time for us to investigate innovative applications for wastewater reuse and put the ideas into action.  We need to ensure that wastewater is properly treated worldwide so only the cleanest water is available for recycling.  All of this can done.  We simply need to recognize that there is no such thing as wastewater, but rather only wasted water.


1 On average, high-income countries treat about 70% of the wastewater they generate, while that ratio drops to 38% in upper-middle-income countries and to 28% in lower-middle-income countries. In low-income countries, only 8% of industrial and municipal wastewater undergoes treatment of any kind (Sato et. al, 2013).