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A Surprising Key to New Recycling Boom

Posted on December 7th, 2015 by in Chemical R&D


Green chemistry advances are making human waste recycling accessible in many parts of the world, and diverse projects are emerging to make wastewater containing sewage a profitable asset that promotes sustainability.

The United Nations Environment Program and the Stockholm Environment Institute recently completed an extended study that found wastewater recycling could unlock huge value chains alongside major sustainability gains. Green chemistry advances are central to achieving a future vision for wastewater recycling. Breaking down the chemicals in sewage and similar wastewater substances can allow those materials to be used as a form of biofuel, creating a sustainable energy resource.

This is especially true if chemistry advances can allow for the creation of biofuel from wastewater without creating potentially harmful gases. The UNEP study found that the benefits of innovation in these areas could be staggering.

Considering the benefits of wastewater recycling
The ability to create biofuel through wastewater could lead to major economic gains in diverse settings. A few key points emphasized by the study include:

Wastewater from a city of 10 million could generate enough nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to fertilize approximately 5,000 hectares of farmland.
In Vientiane, capital of Lao, wastewater output converted to biofuel would be able to power the city’s buses for 10,000 kilometers daily.
Working with the World Bank, the study estimated that wastewater recycling in India would create sanitation improvements sufficient to save approximately $54 billion annually on costs for water provisioning and healthcare.
The precious metals – copper, silver and gold – found in sludge generated in urban parts of the United States could be salvaged to create $280 per tonne of sludge.
These benefits emphasize the economic gains offered by wastewater in rural areas, but they can extend out to rural regions as well.


While wastewater won’t be as plentiful in regions with low population densities, the UNEP worked in Hölö, Sweden, to develop a strategy involving community collaboration to maximize the value of wastewater as an agricultural fertilizer.


Bringing green chemistry to bear
All of these economic advantages brought to light by the UNEP are only possible if scientists are able to develop efficient, cost-effective solutions for wastewater recycling. One organization already has a significant project underway. According to Popsop, nonprofit Oxfam recently developed a fuel cell designed to reside in public toilets and connect directly to an LED light. The fuel cell captures urine, breaks it down and uses it to fuel the light for the cubicle.

This advance could prove key in the fight to protect people from assault and rape in parts of the world where electricity is not widely available in public toilets. This simple innovation can put human waste to incredibly good use.
Envisioning a future where human waste is valuable
Conversations about sewage recycling may seem a bit gross, but emerging green chemistry models are empowering organizations to consider new ways to meet societal demands. Whether you are dealing with big-picture, macroeconomics or small problems, wastewater recycling holds a potential answer.

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