Objectives and Evolution of Wastewater Treatment

We cannot allow wastewater to be disposed of in a manner dangerous to human health and lesser life forms or damaging to the natural environment. Our planet has the remarkable ability to heal itself, but there is a limit to what it can do, and we must make it our goal to always stay within safe bounds. That limit is not always clear to scientists, and we must always take the safe approach to avoid it.

Basic wastewater treatment facilities reduce organic and suspended solids to limit pollution to the environment. Advancement in needs and technology have necessitated the evolving of treatment processes that remove dissolved matter and toxic substances. Currently, the advancement of scientific knowledge and moral awareness has led to a reduction of discharges through pollution prevention and recycling, with the noble goal of zero discharge of pollutants.

Treatment technology includes physical, biological, and chemical methods. Residual substances removed or created by treatment processes must be dealt with and reused or disposed of in a safe way. The purified water is discharged to surface water or ground water. Residuals, called sludges or biosolids, may be reused by carefully controlled composting or land application. Sometimes they are incinerated.

Since early in history, people have dumped sewage into waterways, relying on natural purification by dilution and by natural bacterial breakdown. Population increases resulted in greater volume of domestic and industrial wastewater, requiring that we give nature a helping hand. Some so-called advancements in cities such as Boston involved collecting sewage in tanks and releasing it to the ocean only on the outgoing tide. Sludge was barged out to sea so as to not cause complaint.

Until the early 1970s, in the United States, treatment mostly consisted of removal of suspended and floating material, treatment of biodegradable organics, and elimination of pathogenic organisms by disinfection. Standards were not uniformly applied throughout the country.

In the early 1970s until about 1980, aesthetic and environmental concerns were considered. Treatment was at a higher level, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus were removed in many localities.

Since 1980, focus on health concerns related to toxics has driven the development of new treatment technology. Water-quality standards were established by states and the federal government and had to be met as treatment objectives. Not just direct human health but aquatic-life parameters were considered in developing the standards.

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