Repository logo

To treat or not to treat: the evolution of wastewater treatment management approaches




Turner, Sydney S., author
Venayagamoorthy, S. Karan, advisor
Grigg, Neil, committee member
Kent, Suzanne, committee member

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


The research presented in this thesis focuses on wastewater management practices to further the understanding of the evolution of wastewater treatment approaches. Within this thesis, wastewater treatment technologies and processes are categorized into four groups: dilution dependent, conventional, alternative, and emerging. The evolution of wastewater treatment technologies is initiated with initial investment by a society to self-organize; transformed when there are alterations in the way the society lives, primarily considering the urbanization and industrialization of societies; and satisfied when the society has incorporated sustainable practices that can ensure water security for future generations. The motivation of this research is to interpret how the concept of conventional wastewater treatment can be driven to encompass more sustainable approaches in both the developed and developing world. In order to facilitate understanding of this, we aim to address the following: what wastewater technologies are available and how practical are they?, what are some significant drivers that have driven the evolution of wastewater treatment up till now?, how do institutional arrangements affect implementation of technologies?, and how does public perception play a role in the adoption or repudiation of wastewater treatment technologies? To investigate these questions, South Africa and the United States were used as primary case studies. There is an abundance of technologies used in the field of wastewater treatment; however, the resources (natural, financial, and technical) of a society will determine the practicality of implementing certain technologies. The major drivers that lead to the transformation of treatment technologies include the following: population growth and urbanization, public health initiatives, actions to prevent the degradation of the natural environment, capacity building within institutional arrangements such as societal organization and regulation, concerns of climate change, objectives to minimize conflict, the demand on water from energy and food sectors, and social perception of science. In the United States, "conventional" technologies have been pushed to encompass secondary treatment standards for point source wastewater through policy measures. South Africa, due to its historical Apartheid era, has an additional layer of water management methods that pertains to the access to sanitation services as a human right. In both countries, development of industry has been clashing with preserving the environment and protecting public health. Sustainable, emerging technologies are trying to harmonize economic growth and environmental conservation by treating wastewater as a feed of resources to be recovered. In the exploratory Wastewater Treatment Survey presented in this thesis, responses from 655 U.S. participants were analyzed to demonstrate the effectiveness of surveys to produce social perception data for water managers. From the survey, it was observed that over 35% of U.S. participants were not at all likely or not so likely able to explain what happens to their wastewater. Even within the STEM field respondents, 30% were unsure what happens to their wastewater. This exemplifies a wide gap in the link between humans and their waste disposal. Of the 655 U.S. respondents, over 90% were moderately to extremely concerned about water pollution. A higher level of concern for wastewater pollution was also correlated with people who believed they had a better understanding of wastewater treatment. Those who were more concerned about water pollution were also more likely to get involved in water resources management activities. The respondents chose protecting public health and the integrity of the environment as the two main reasons why wastewater treatment is necessary. Of the U.S. respondents, around three-quarters of the participants believe that no longer can dilution be treated as the solution to pollution with the majority of the other participants believing that it may only be conditionally sufficient. Many alternative and emerging technologies are being heavily scrutinized by the public. Public buy-in is necessary to transform the wastewater field and will only be accomplished when societal perception and wastewater treatment technologies are linked. From the survey data, almost 60% of the U.S. participants were willing to increase a utility bill by at least 3 additional USD to pay for improvements in their wastewater treatment plant's treatment capabilities whereas only 46% were willing to pay at least 3 additional USD for improvements in their wastewater treatment plant's energy efficiency. In the real world, these improvements for a treatment plant may not be mutually exclusive; however, this type of information may help a water manager build public buy-in for the project. Only 14.35% of U.S. respondents were completely willing to drink direct potable reuse water, with an additional 22.29% very willing to drink it.


Rights Access


water management
public attitudes
water resources
wastewater treatment


Associated Publications