Water recycling and reuse systems: Strategies for a smaller carbon footprint

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Water recycling and reuse systems can be great strategies for addressing water scarcity. By recapturing liquid streams after use, facilities can seize on obvious benefits, like reducing the amount of water they consume or the volume of wastewater they discharge, as well as saving on associated costs. But another important benefit of water recycling and reuse programs is that they can also help facilities to meet other sustainability goals—like reducing carbon emissions.  

water treatment ponds

What are water reuse and water recycling?

Water reuse and water recycling refer to the practice of reclaiming spent water and using it again, either for the same process, or for a different process. The terms are often used interchangeably, along with “water reclamation.”

Most water recycling programs will require investment in water treatment systems to ensure that the recycled stream is suitable for the processes at hand. Facilities may use media or membrane filtration, ion exchange resin systems, biological treatment, physical chemical separation, or other treatment technologies. The ideal treatment approach will depend upon a variety of variables, such as the character of the influent waste stream, the required level of quality after treatment, and capacity.

In some cases, facilities are able to reuse streams with little to no pretreatment, so adoption of a water recycling program can be as simple as installing some basic pumps, tanks, or piping to recirculate a stream after use. Common examples of streams that are suitable for reuse with little to no pretreatment include cleaning baths, rinse water, or boiler condensate. A facility will likely need to monitor the quality of the stream to ensure it is fit for reuse, but these types of reuse projects tend to be well worth the modest capital investment that it takes to implement them. 

How do water reuse/recycle programs reduce carbon emissions?

The most obvious impact of water recycling and reuse programs is, of course, a reduction in overall water consumption. But in doing so, water recycling programs also deliver some significant indirect benefits by shrinking a facility’s carbon footprint in the following ways:

      • Reducing energy used for extraction. A reuse program means that a facility can reduce its water withdrawals, meaning that it will consume less energy for extraction, pumping, and distribution of water from groundwater, seawater, or other sources.
      • Reducing energy used for transportation. Since water recycling programs allow facilities to use less water, they also help to reduce energy consumption and emissions generated from water transportation, particularly if the water source is located far from the user.
      • Reducing energy used for treatment. Water treatment technologies often have energy costs of their own, so treating streams to a higher level of quality than necessary only adds to a facility’s carbon footprint. Recycling programs that reuse streams for multiple cycles, or that divert degraded streams for secondary applications, help to cut down on carbon emissions related to water treatment. Additionally, some wastewater treatment technologies go a step further, like microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which help to offset carbon emissions by leveraging wastewater as a green energy source.
      • Reducing resources used for wastewater treatment. Water recycling programs reduce the overall volume of wastewater, meaning that less energy is consumed for wastewater treatment, and less emissions are created as a result. And while it’s true that treating streams for reuse can add their own energy costs to the equation, such treatment is often much narrower in scope than a comprehensive wastewater treatment system used for direct discharge to the environment, or for discharge to municipal facility.

Reducing resource consumption. Water recycle/reuse programs allow facilities to recover not just water, but other resources as well, such as nutrients, biofuels, or metals that are present in wastewater or process streams. Reclamation of these and other valuable resources reduces a facility’s needs to source them, which can in turn shrink the carbon footprint resulting from all the processes used to mine, manufacture, or ship them.

Trends in water recycling and reuse

As we’ve said, water recycling programs offer some excellent benefits by reducing water withdrawals and wastewater discharge volumes, as well as reducing carbon emissions. These qualities make water reuse strategies increasingly desirable—or even downright necessary—in a world that is recognizing issues of water scarcity and climate change with growing urgency. These factors help to explain why adoption of water reuse/recycling programs are on the rise.

As we grapple with current and future threats related to water scarcity, there is some expectation that governments will help to drive the growth of water recycling programs, both by offering incentives, and by making it more expensive to source or discharge water. While very limited at this time, some governments have already started to offer subsidies and tax credits to industrial and municipal facilities who adopt water reuse programs or take other steps to cut water use. Regulatory bodies are also increasingly imposing higher penalties for water consumption and discharge. As a result, water reuse/recycling programs are likely to become more common as facilities look for ways to minimize costs related to higher water withdrawal rates, as well as punitive fines or fees.

Still, there are a couple of challenges that limit the adoption of water recycling/reuse programs. Key among these is technical feasibility. Facilities may lack space for additional treatment equipment, or may believe that their waste streams are too challenging to treat for reuse, or that a reuse project will be cost-prohibitive. In some cases, working with a qualified water treatment specialist may help to identify new technologies to overcome these types of challenges, and unlock water recycling opportunities.

Another limiting factor is public perception. Despite the wide variety of water treatment technologies available to bring water up to a desired level of quality, many people worry about potential safety hazards of wastewater reuse or recycling. As a result, facilities can be reluctant to recycle streams for worry that their products will be perceived as unsafe or lacking in quality. This perception is already starting to change, and is likely to continue to shift as the public becomes more informed about water recycle/reuse programs and their benefits.

Can SAMCO help?

SAMCO has over 40 years of experience in custom-designing and manufacturing water treatment systems for a variety of industrial and municipal applications, so please reach out to us with your questions. SAMCO can review your goals and help your facility plan a treatment solution that meets your water quality needs, while delivering all of the benefits you expect from a water conservation strategy.

For more information or to get in touch, contact us here to set up a consultation with an engineer or request a quote. We can walk you through the steps for developing the proper solution and realistic cost for optimizing water use at your facility.

You can also click on over to our blog to learn more about industrial filtration and process separation technology. Some articles that might be of specific interest to you include:


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