Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Our Wastewater Is a Valuable, Recoverable Resource

By John Burgess

Australia can quickly turn our wastewater from a burden to a benefit.

Australia is literally wasting millions – maybe billions – of dollars each year by not extracting the full value of its wastewater.

Phosphorus, nitrogen and energy are necessary for life, and continued extraction of non-renewable forms of these resources is ultimately not possible. Each of these is contained in our wastewater, which is rich in nutrients, carbon, energy, and other inorganic and organic resources.

So how do we optimise this value and avoid wasting these water-borne resources, which have the proven potential to generate energy, produce fertilisers and save money?

The solutions to this waste are available to us now. They just require a strong focus on recognising the potential and implementing the technology. The upside is the financial returns available to those who grasp the challenge.

Population growth, increasing demand for natural resources, rising costs and community expectations place pressure on policy­makers to manage natural resources and require the water industry to develop innovative and more efficient processes.

Resource recovery can preserve original natural resources, minimise waste generation and maximise value creation from waste products.

The Academy of Technology, funded by the Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence, has recently completed a major investigation of the issue and published its report. Wastewater: An Untapped Resource? took a financial prism to the issue, and made some strong recommendations that could see Australia make some strong strides forward in wastewater resource recovery.

The report recommends using true “net present value” analyses for resource recovery projects, considering revenue streams in addition to the capital and operating costs and elimination of operating costs. Financial analysis should include the concept of “value at risk” and a “real options approach” to deal with future financial investment uncertainty.

Innovative Partnerships
The Australian wastewater industry should take the lead in developing value-adding and innovative partnerships with private investment groups to facilitate investment in resource recovery. Upstream, this would mean the active development of Public–Private Partnerships, relationships with technology suppliers and the use of build–own–operate partnerships with private providers to produce resource recovery products. Downstream, it would mean reaching out to energy, agriculture and horticulture users of products to ensure a deep understanding of the associated value propositions.

Technology Developments
Economic analysis has shown that several of the newer technologies and technology combinations with low energy consumption will in future be economic at larger scales. The main economic barrier is market readiness rather than technical performance. Previous government-level R&D funding has focused mainly on water supplies rather than wastewater treatment. Australia should remain close to the new wastewater treatment technology developments and participate in associated international and local RD&D studies.

Fertiliser Potential
International experience shows that resource recovery nutrient products can be marketed with high retail price margins if the market is properly developed and the benefits to customers are demonstrated. Fertilisers from resource recovery are also sustainable, a key market differentiator. The unique value of resource recovery products has not yet been fully developed in Australia. Australia should increase its R&D on the agricultural and horticultural benefits of resource recovery fertiliser products, especially for niche retail markets.

Better Regulation
The regulatory frameworks surrounding water, wastewater processing and waste disposal often present an impediment to investment in resource recovery. This is due to differences in jurisdictions, differences in requirements between “waste” and “fertiliser”, and the imposition of a time-consuming, costly and onerous interface for private investors. On the other hand, stricter effluent water nutrient content regulations are often a driver for beneficial recovery of nutrients. Commonality and simplicity in regulations for water and waste across state jurisdictions would facilitate investment in resource recovery.

Since many resource recovery products are used as fertilisers, they should be treated similarly to fertilisers in terms of regulation of trace element contamination. Similarly, energy generation from resource recovery is renewable and should be regulated accordingly, including appropriate levels of feed-in tariff for the electricity generated and renewable energy incentives, the report states.

If Australia picked up on these recommendations it could quickly turn our wastewater from a burden to a benefit.

Dr John Burgess FTSE is a chemical engineer who led the working group that developed Wastewater: An Untapped Resource?