Feature Article

Waste Water, Want Water

Options for small-scale, onsite wastewater treatment and reuse are improving-but can we solve a global crisis one building at a time?

January 28, 2013

Our wastewater infrastructure is largely invisible and little understood. Most of us never question the wisdom of polluting pristine drinking water, losing valuable nitrogen and irreplaceable phosphorus in the process, just so we can make our poop disappear. Our own waste is a classic SEP—Somebody Else’s Problem.

The result? “Aging pipes and inadequate capacity lead .... to the discharge of an estimated 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage each year,” warns the American Society of Civil Engineers in its report Failure to Act. “Water infrastructure in the United States is clearly aging, and investment is not able to keep up with the need.” (For more, see “Failing Water Infrastructure Drains Economy, Report Warns,” EBN Feb. 2012.) Though most rest areas still use one-way water cycling (onsite septic fields or long-distance connections with centralized systems), a few throughout the U.S. are incorporating constructed wetlands and other natural filtration systems that close the loop, permitting safe and sustainable wastewater treatment and reuse right on the site.