Water companies considering systems to turn sewage to drinking water

Water companies are considering ‘toilet-to-tap’ systems to turn sewage into drinking-water to avert shortages over next 20 years… as firms face fury over dumping of human waste in seas and beauty spots around Britain

  • Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, said people need to become ‘less squeamish’  
  • He said the scheme is ‘perfectly safe and healthy’ and will reduce the reliance on water from reservoirs 
  • Toilets, bath and sink water could go through ‘advanced purification’ to become drinking water by 2030
  • Follows water companies spending 900m hours pumping raw sewage into Britain’s rivers and seas since 2016

Britain’s water companies are now considering a ‘toilet-to-tap’ system that will see old sewage being used again to provide drinking water – to prevent water shortages in future heatwaves. 

Using recycled wastewater will make it easier to solve droughts by reducing the dependence on water taken from rivers and reservoirs. 

The Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, wrote in the Sunday Times that Britons need to become ‘less squeamish’ about the possibility of drinking recycled lavatory water as it could become commonplace over the next 20 years. 

He added the system is ‘perfectly safe and healthy’ – despite it not being something that ‘many people fancy’. 

The schemes could be in use in the UK by 2030.  

Droughts and hosepipe bans were declared across the UK after weeks of little to no rainfall – but specially-treated recycled water from toilets, sinks and bathtubs could be one solution. 

Britain’s water companies are now considering a ‘toilet-to-tap’ system that will see old sewage being used again to provide drinking water – to prevent water shortages in future heatwaves. Pictured: Waste water being released from an industrial complex into the River Swale in Kent

Companies planning the recycling schemes include Severn Trent, Affinity Water, Thames Water, Southern Water and Portsmouth Water.  

The systems were trialled in Singapore in 1998 and have also been used in other places facing water shortages, for example California.  

But in 2006 Toowoomba, a city in eastern Australia suffering extreme drought, tried to introduce the wastewater recycling saw the scheme rejected by 62 per cent of voters as disgust remains around the concept. 

The new plans have emerged after water companies have come under fire for releasing excessive amounts of sewage into rivers and seas after heavy rain following the summer’s drought caused pipes to overflow. 

One place that has been affected is Lake Windermere. Matt Staniek, a 26-year-old conservationist raised the alarm over toxic algal blooms and vanishing wildlife at the ‘dying’ UNESCO-protected beauty spot.

Water companies have dumped excessive amounts of sewage into rivers and seas in Britain. One place that has been affected is Lake Windermere (pictured) as raw sewage was pumped into the lake for 1,719 hours in 2020

An interactive map from the River Trust shows at least seven points where waste was discharged into Lake Windermere last year

He blamed sewage works pollution, local agriculture and the 2,000 private septic tanks that line the rural hotspot.

Raw sewage was pumped into the lake for 1,719 hours in 2020.

Around 40% of the phosphate going into the lake is from treated effluent and sewer overflows from United Utilities infrastructure, 30% from agriculture, and 30% from private septic tanks and runoff from highways.

Water companies are allowed to release sewage into rivers and seas to prevent sewage works becoming overwhelmed during periods of heavy rain. 

A ‘foul smelling’ oil was dumped along a walking trail in the Prestwich Clough Woodland Trust, which is near Manchester

But critics say that firms have failed to invest in better infrastructure such as storage tanks, preferring to pay dividends to shareholders and bonuses to top executives. 

Environment Agency figures revealed that water companies have spent more than nine million hours pumping raw sewage into the UK’s seas and rivers since 2016. 

The data – obtained by the Labour Party through a Freedom of Information request – shows that since 2016, raw sewage has been released into the UK’s seas and rivers for a total of 9,427,355 hours. 

It also shows that there has been a 2,553 per cent increase in the number of monitored discharge hours between 2016 and 2021, with the party arguing that the situation is ‘drastically worsening’ under the Conservatives. 

In 2016, the Environment Agency recorded 100,533 hours’ worth of spills. By 2021, that figure had rocketed to 2,667,452. 

Only 14 per cent of rivers in England are considered to be in good ecological status. 

This summer, Surfers Against Sewage issued warnings to holidaymakers to avoid 50 beaches across England and Wales because the sea has been polluted by sewage. 

Environmental campaigners say Liz Truss is responsible for farmers being allowed to dump pollutants into Britain’s rivers. 

As Environmental Secretary in 2015 Truss cut 34,000 farming inspections a year, meaning farmers could dump waste, including pesticides and animal faeces, into rivers without fearing fines.  

Agricultural waste now outstrips sewage as main danger to England’s waterways.

Campaigners say this had consequences for Britain’s rivers, as Greenpeace said it had been ‘catastrophic’ for the environment. 

Water companies will now face the strictest ever targets on sewage pollution after sustained criticism of the level of filth released into waterways. 

Environmental campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) keeps its own interactive map where surfers and other beach visitors can check the water quality of their local beach on a day to day basis. Ticks mean water quality is fine for water activities, while beaches with cross marks are to be avoided. Spanner and snowflake symbols mean water quality data is unavailable due to ongoing works or the beach being out of season

Ministers appear to have bowed to pressure amid growing calls to clamp down on those contributing to water pollution.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it is launching what it calls the ‘largest infrastructure programme in water company history to crack down on sewage spills and end pollution.’

The water industry has admitted there is ‘urgent need for action’ to prevent these situations arising in future.

Footage on social media showed sewage being released into the sea just feet away from a popular beach in East Sussex

But new plans, announced by the Government yesterday, will require companies to invest £56billion over 25 years to increase network capacity, treat sewage and reduce leaks or face huge fines.

Under the proposals, water companies will have to achieve targets, so discharges only happen when there is unusually heavy rain and when there is no immediate adverse impact to the local environment.

By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into, or near, every designated bathing water site; and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high priority nature sites such as sites of special scientific interest.

By 2050, this will apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by targets, regardless of location.

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