Why Policymakers Hold The Key To Catalyzing Regenerative Wastewater Innovation And Adaptation

By Stanley Janicki

Raw sewage to clean, drinkable water? Yes, through advanced nutrient recovery and recycling technology, the future of human wastewater treatment is here.

The byproducts of human activities are often perceived as a burden, an unpleasant necessity that must be managed and disposed of – traditionally at a cost – to get them out of sight and out of mind. But with the right technology and supportive policy frameworks, wastewater can be transformed from a burden into a critical resource, capable of being recycled and regenerated into clean water, energy, nutrients, and other valuable outputs.

Reused gray water, which is water that has been treated but is not suitable for drinking, has long been utilized for irrigation at the Koele Golf Course in Hawaii, for cooling purposes at the Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona, and even for toilet flushing in high-rise buildings in Irvine, California. These initiatives have not only helped to conserve traditional water systems but have also preserved sensitive ecosystems by reducing the diversion of freshwater. With that said, these legacy systems can carry hefty price tags and fall short of effectively recovering valuable resources to offset operational expenses.

Fortunately, today, emerging wastewater treatment processes like the Varcor® system are designed to harness the energy stored in organic waste materials, thus reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, essential for plant growth, can also be recovered and reused in agriculture with proper regenerative processes in place, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. However, increased technology investments – supported by smart public policy – are required to tap into these benefits.

Next Generation Municipal Wastewater Management

Wastewater recycling extends far beyond the traditional notions of waste management, and initiatives across the United States provide a testament to this potential. In fact, one of the most impressive examples is the Groundwater Replenishment System in Orange County, California.

Jointly operated by the Orange County Water District and the Orange County Sanitation District, the GWRS boasts the world’s most extensive water purification system for indirect potable reuse. The initiative takes highly treated wastewater previously discharged into the Pacific Ocean and purifies it using an advanced three-step process. The result is high-quality water that meets all state and federal drinking water standards.

Another leading-edge initiative in regenerative wastewater treatment is Generate Upcycle’s facility in Sumner, Washington, which operates in partnership with Sedron Technologies, utilizing our Varcor® system to process septage and biosolids from municipal wastewater. With a capacity to treat 150,000 tons annually, the facility regenerates septage and biosolids to produce clean water, pathogen-free fertilizers, and aqueous nitrogen fertilizers.

The West Basin wastewater treatment plant in California offers one more shining example. By using reverse osmosis to remove impurities from the wastewater, the facility produces approximately 40 million gallons of usable water daily, significantly contributing to water conservation efforts by reducing the demand for freshwater resources.

Recent legislative moves, such as the reintroduction of a bipartisan bill by U.S. Representatives John Garamendi (D-CA) and Ken Calvert (R-CA) to extend the term for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, reflect the growing recognition of the need to support regenerative and sustainable wastewater treatment. This commonsense bill, H.R. 1181, would extend the maximum term for NPDES permits from five to ten years, aiding wastewater recycling initiatives by aligning with the project construction schedules for public agencies. It now needs the support of fellow policymakers to become law.

Agricultural Resource Recovery

The Varcor® system also demonstrates the potential for wastewater recycling in the agricultural sector. The system has been successfully tested on a certified organic dairy farm in Indiana, resulting in a 33% reduction in the farm’s environmental footprint while producing sustainable dairy products.

According to Cheri De Jong, a principal owner of the farm, one of the most valuable aspects of the process is the generation of pathogen and weed free fertilizers and its convenience. The fertilizer can be transported, stored, and applied as and when needed.

In Idaho, scientists have developed a method to recycle phosphorus from wastewater and reintroduce it into soil through biochar, a charcoal-like substance created from organic matter in an oxygen-deprived environment. The technique has been patented by Daniel Strawn, a University of Idaho professor who hopes to spread this solution globally to improve agricultural practices and reduce pollution.

Policymakers must play a pivotal role in encouraging this type of agricultural adoption. The Agricultural Environmental Stewardship Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in 2021 by U.S. Representatives Ron Kind (D-WI) and Tom Reed (R-NY), was one such policy effort. The act aimed to provide tax incentives to farmers and rural electric cooperatives that invest in biogas technology.

While the bill has not become law, aspects of it have been enacted through other legislation, such as a tax credit of up to 30% for “qualified biogas property,” which consists of a system that regenerates biomass into a gas comprised of at least 52% methane by volume and captures this gas for sale or productive use. However, the tax credit falls short of the Agricultural Environmental Stewardship Act by limiting the benefit to methane capture only.

The tax credit should be expanded to cover more dynamic technology that eliminates concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) lagoons, leaving cleaner and fresher air while producing clean, drinkable water. To encourage wastewater recycling and nutrient recovery for agricultural operations of all sizes, lawmakers should support the passage of the full Agricultural Environmental Stewardship Act in 2024.

The Future of Regenerative Wastewater Treatment

Wastewater recycling has taken root in the U.S., but local municipalities and the private sector cannot lead this vital component of the sustainability movement alone. To realize the full potential of regenerative wastewater treatment and resource recovery, federal lawmakers need backing to help drive research and development, encourage investment in new technologies, and foster a regulatory environment that promotes efficient and sustainable wastewater recycling practices.

Proposed legislation like H.R. 1181 and a renewed push on the Agricultural Environmental Stewardship Act will catalyze the adoption of regenerative wastewater treatment and resource recovery. As we move towards a sustainable future, integrating technology and supportive policy frameworks will be vital in unlocking the full potential of wastewater recycling.

Stanley Janicki is the Chief Revenue Officer of Sedron Technologies, developer of the Varcor® system, a highly efficient solution for processing liquid waste streams that concentrates and recovers the outputs into pathogen-free solid and liquid fractions. To learn more, visit sedron.com/varcor.