The economics of treatment versus discharge

Senior group engineer at W S Atkins Consultants, Martin Kimber, argues that if actual costs were applied, the treatment of wastewaters from water treatment plants would be seen to be more economical than discharge to a sewer.

The treatment and recycling of water treatment plant wastes offers several

benefits to Water Treatment Works (WTW) operators: an increase in deployable

output; control of the risk of Cryptosporidium in treated water; waste

minimisation; and, compliance with tighter Environment Agency standards for

discharges. It is evident that there are further benefits from additional treatment

of wastewater.

Waste discharge

What really stands out is that the works discharging to a sewer were reportedly

all operated by water and sewerage companies (WASCs) or authorities, responsible

for both services. Apparently the water treatment plants were not charged for

discharging their wastes to the sewer.

If standard trade effluent charges or even the economic costs were to be charged

there is no doubt that we would see dramatic changes in disposal routes, with

a sharp drop in the quantity of sludge disposed to sewers. The water treatment

plant’s wastewater discharged to sewers would, if they were not ‘internal’ to

the WASCs, normally be subject to trade effluent charges.

What are the costs of treatment of wastewater on site? Costs are site specific,

size dependent, and dependent also on the nature and quantity of the waste being

treated. For a large plant with no existing wastewater treatment facilities,

the capital cost would be of the order of £25,000 to £50,000 per

Mld (megalitres per day) of treated water (not volume of waste treated) and

the operating cost would be of the order of £1000 to £2500 per year

per Mld of treated water. If filtration is not required, as is the case for

most plants, then the costs will drop.

These costs need to be compared with the costs associated with discharging

to a sewer and sewage treatment. A reasonable way of assessing these costs is

to calculate the trade effluent charge that a discharge would attract.

Trade effluent charges depend on the strength of the waste and vary across

the country. The charge is made up of components relating to the volume of waste,

the chemical oxygen demand of the waste, and the suspended solids concentration.

For water treatment wastes, a reasonable assumption is a charge of £0.75/m³.

Based on this, if discharges were subject to trade effluent charges, the annual

charge across the country would be in the order of £60 million/yr. To

put this large sum into context, it represents a cost of around £0.04/m³

of water produced (equivalent to £14,600/Mld/yr), assuming all wastes

are discharged to sewer. If the wastes were pre-treated by settlement then the

volume charge would reduce greatly but this would be partially offset by a large

increase in the solids-based charge.

Discharging wastes to the sewer transfers treatment to a sewage treatment works.

Sewage treatment will not significantly reduce the quantity of water treatment

solids that ultimately needs to be disposed of, but does involve the diluting

of wastes with sewage, providing full sewage treatment, and then still having

to treat and dispose of the solids in the sewage sludge. It is therefore clear

that, in principle, discharge of water treatment wastes to sewers will incur

additional costs compared to on-site treatment at source.

Sludge treatment

Similarly, provided trade effluent charges equate to the actual costs of dealing

with trade wastes, which they should, then it will often be economic to provide

sludge treatment rather than discharge to a sewer. Of course smaller water treatment

works would have disproportionately high operating costs for waste treatment

and, for such plants, disposal to sewer may be more attractive particularly

for unmanned sites.

There is also an additional benefit arising from the water resource produced

by recycling, as the cost of buying new resources is generally significantly

higher than the cost of recycling. For example, the cost of developing and supplying

additional water resources is high, typically of the order of £1m /Mld

to £2m /Mld, which is similar to the capital cost of a treatment and recycling

plant. An efficient conventional water treatment plant using rapid gravity filtration

will produce a waste volume of two to three per cent of water put into supply.

For plants which draw water from large reservoirs the additional resource from

recycling can be discharged to the reservoir over the entire year. For plants

with direct abstraction recycling may only be of interest at times when throughput

is limited by the abstraction licence. However, in either case, recycling will

provide an additional water resource.

Clearly if trade effluent charges represent actual costs, there is an overwhelming

economic case for recycling which is further reinforced by comparison to the

cost of developing an equivalent new resource. The appreciation by companies

of the real costs of disposal of sludge to a sewer, together with the savings

to be made from recycling rather than developing new resources, may explain

why WS Atkins has recently been increasingly involved in projects involving

recycling of wastewater from water treatment works.

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