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Sewage treatment - Wikipedia

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This article is about the treatment of municipal wastewater. For the treatment of any type of wastewater, see wastewater treatment.

Sewage treatment (or domestic wastewater treatment, municipal wastewater treatment) is a type of wastewater treatment which aims to remove contaminants from sewage. Sewage contains wastewater from households and businesses and possibly pre-treated industrial wastewater. Physical, chemical, and biological processes are used to remove contaminants and produce treated wastewater (or treated effluent) that is safe enough for release into the environment. A by-product of sewage treatment is a semi-solid waste or slurry, called sewage sludge. The sludge has to undergo further treatment before being suitable for disposal or application to land. The term "sewage treatment plant" is often used interchangeably with the term "wastewater treatment plant".[2]

For most cities, the sewer system will also carry a proportion of industrial effluent to the sewage treatment plant that has usually received pre-treatment at the factories to reduce the pollutant load. If the sewer system is a combined sewer, then it will also carry urban runoff (stormwater) to the sewage treatment plant. Sewage is conveyed in sewerage which comprises the drains, pipework and pumps to convey the sewage to the treatment works inlet. The treatment of municipal wastewater is part of the field of sanitation. Sanitation also includes the management of human waste and solid waste as well as stormwater (drainage) management.[3]

At the global level, an estimated 52% of municipal wastewater is treated.[4] However, wastewater treatment rates are highly unequal for different countries around the world. For example, while high-income countries treat approximately 74% of their municipal wastewater, developing countries treat an average of just 4.2%.[4] Wastewater that is discharged untreated into the environment can cause water pollution.[5]

In developing countries and in rural areas with low population densities, sewage is often treated by various on-site sanitation systems and not conveyed in sewers. These systems include septic tanks connected to drain fields, on-site sewage systems (OSS), vermifilter systems and many more. A typical sewage treatment plant in a high-income country may include primary treatment to remove solid material, secondary treatment to digest dissolved and suspended organic material as well as the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, and - sometimes but not always - disinfection to kill pathogenic bacteria. Sewage can also be treated by processes using "Nature-based solutions".


The term "sewage treatment plant" (or "sewage treatment works" in some countries) is nowadays often replaced with the term wastewater treatment plant or wastewater treatment station.[2] Strictly speaking, the latter is a broader term that can also refer to industrial wastewater.

Sewage can be treated close to where the sewage is created, which may be called a "decentralized" system or even an "on-site" system (in septic tanks, biofilters or aerobic treatment systems). Alternatively, sewage can be collected and transported by a network of pipes and pump stations to a municipal treatment plant. This is called a "centralized" system (see also sewerage and pipes and infrastructure).

Origins of sewage and pollutants[edit]

Sewage is generated by residential, institutional, commercial and industrial establishments. It includes household waste liquid from toilets, baths, showers, kitchens, and sinks draining into sewers. In many areas, sewage also includes liquid waste from industry and commerce.

Sewage contains organic matter that can cause odor and attract flies. It also has high concentrations of ammonium, nitrate, nitrogen, phosphorus, high conductivity (due to high dissolved solids), high alkalinity, with pH typically ranging between 7 and 8. Sewage contains human feces, and therefore often contains pathogens.[6][7]


A system of sewer pipes (sewers) collects sewage and takes it for treatment or disposal. The system of sewers is called sewerage or sewerage system in British English and sewage system in American English. In many cities, municipal wastewater is carried together with stormwater, in a combined sewer system, to a sewage treatment plant. In some urban areas, municipal wastewater is carried separately in sanitary sewers and runoff from streets is carried in storm drains. Access to these systems, for maintenance purposes, is typically through a manhole.

During high precipitation periods a combined sewer system may experience a combined sewer overflow event, which forces untreated sewage to flow directly to receiving waters. This can pose a serious threat to public health and the surrounding environment.

In low-income countries or rural regions, sewage may drain directly into major watersheds with minimal or no treatment. This usually has serious impacts on the quality of an environment and on human health. Pathogens can cause a variety of illnesses. Some chemicals pose risks even at very low concentrations and can remain a threat for long periods of time because of bioaccumulation in animal or human tissue.

Current approaches to sewage management may include handling surface runoff separately from sewage, handling greywater separately from blackwater (flush toilets), and coping better with abnormal events (such as peaks stormwater volumes from extreme weather).

Where a main sewerage system has not been provided, sewage may be collected from homes by pipes into septic tanks or cesspits, where it may be treated or collected in vehicles and taken for treatment or disposal.

Treatment process steps[edit]


Sewage treatment is the process of removing the contaminants from sewage to produce liquid and solid (sludge) suitable for discharge to the environment or for reuse. It is a form of waste management. A septic tank or other on-site wastewater treatment system such as biofilters or constructed wetlands can be used to treat sewage close to where it is created.

Sewage treatment results in sewage sludge which requires sewage sludge treatment before safe disposal or reuse. Under certain circumstances, the treated sewage sludge might be termed "biosolids" and can be used as a fertilizer.

In most countries, sewage collection and treatment is typically subject to local and national regulations and standards.

Before the 20th century, sewers usually discharged into a body of water such as a stream, river, lake, bay, or ocean. There was no treatment, so the breakdown of the human waste was left to the ecosystem. Today, the goal is that sewers route their contents to a sewage treatment plant rather than directly to a body of water. In many countries, this is the norm; in many developing countries, it may be a yet-unrealized goal.

The aim of treating sewage is to produce an effluent that will do as little harm as possible when discharged to the surrounding environment, thereby preventing pollution.[8]

The main processes involve removing as much of the solid material as possible, and then using biological processes to convert the remaining soluble material into a floc that entraps any remaining fine solids and which can then be settled as a sludge, leaving a liquid substantially free of solids, and with a greatly reduced concentration of pollutants.

Sewage treatment generally involves three main stages, called primary, secondary and tertiary treatment but may also include intermediate stages and final polishing processes.


Pretreatment removes all materials that can be easily collected from the raw sewage before they damage or clog the pumps and sewage lines of primary treatment clarifiers. Objects commonly removed during pretreatment include trash, tree limbs, and other large objects.

The influent in sewage water passes through a bar screen to remove all large objects like cans, rags, sticks, plastic packets etc. carried in the sewage stream.[9] This is most commonly done with an automated mechanically raked bar screen in modern plants serving large populations, while in smaller or less modern plants, a manually cleaned screen may be used. The raking action of a mechanical bar screen is typically paced according to the accumulation on the bar screens and/or flow rate. The solids are collected and later disposed in a landfill, or incinerated. Bar screens or mesh screens of varying sizes may be used to optimize solids removal. If gross solids are not removed, they become entrained in pipes and moving parts of the treatment plant, and can cause substantial damage and inefficiency in the process.[10]:9

Grit removal[edit]

Grit consists of sand, gravel, cinders, and other heavy materials. Pretreatment may include a sand or grit channel or chamber, where the velocity of the incoming sewage is adjusted to allow the settlement of sand and grit. Grit removal is necessary to (1) reduce formation of heavy deposits in aeration tanks, aerobic digesters, pipelines, channels, and conduits; (2) reduce the frequency of digester cleaning caused by excessive accumulations of grit; and (3) protect moving mechanical equipment from abrasion and accompanying abnormal wear. The removal of grit is essential for equipment with closely machined metal surfaces such as comminutors, fine screens, centrifuges, heat exchangers, and high pressure diaphragm pumps. Grit chambers come in 3 types: horizontal grit chambers, aerated grit chambers and vortex grit chambers. Vortex type grit chambers include mechanically induced vortex, hydraulically induced vortex, and multi-tray vortex separators. Given that traditionally, grit removal systems have been designed to remove clean inorganic particles that are greater than 0.210 millimetres (0.0083 in), most grit passes through the grit removal flows under normal conditions. During periods of high flow deposited grit is resuspended and the quantity of grit reaching the treatment plant increases substantially. It is, therefore important that the grit removal system not only operate efficiently during normal flow conditions but also under sustained peak flows when the greatest volume of grit reaches the plant.[2]

Flow equalization[edit]

Clarifiers and mechanized secondary treatment are more efficient under uniform flow conditions. Equalization basins may be used for temporary storage of diurnal or wet-weather flow peaks. Basins provide a place to temporarily hold incoming sewage during plant maintenance and a means of diluting and distributing batch discharges of toxic or high-strength waste which might otherwise inhibit biological secondary treatment (including portable toilet waste, vehicle holding tanks, and septic tank pumpers). Flow equalization basins require variable discharge control, typically include provisions for bypass and cleaning, and may also include aerators. Cleaning may be easier if the basin is downstream of screening and grit removal.[11]

Fat and grease removal[edit]

In some larger plants, fat and grease are removed by passing the sewage through a small tank where skimmers collect the fat floating on the surface. Air blowers in the base of the tank may also be used to help recover the fat as a froth. Many plants, however, use primary clarifiers with mechanical surface skimmers for fat and grease removal.

Primary treatment[edit]

Primary treatment tanks in Oregon, USA

Primary treatment consists of temporarily holding the sewage in a quiescent basin where heavy solids can settle to the bottom while oil, grease and lighter solids float to the surface. The settled and floating materials are removed and the remaining liquid may be discharged or subjected to secondary treatment. Some sewage treatment plants that are connected to a combined sewer system have a bypass arrangement after the primary treatment unit. This means that during very heavy rainfall events, the secondary and tertiary treatment systems can be bypassed to protect them from hydraulic overloading, and the mixture of sewage and storm-water only receives primary treatment.[12]

In the primary sedimentation stage, sewage flows through large tanks, commonly called "pre-settling basins", "primary sedimentation tanks" or "primary clarifiers".[13] The tanks are used to settle sludge while grease and oils rise to the surface and are skimmed off. Primary settling tanks are usually equipped with mechanically driven scrapers that continually drive the collected sludge towards a hopper in the base of the tank where it is pumped to sludge treatment facilities.[10]:9-11 Grease and oil from the floating material can sometimes be recovered for saponification (soap making).

Secondary treatment[edit]

Secondary treatment is a treatment process for wastewater (for example for sewage but also for some types of industrial wastewaters) to achieve a certain degree of effluent quality by using a sewage treatment plant with physical phase separation to remove settleable solids and a biological process to remove dissolved and suspended organic compounds. After this kind of treatment, the wastewater may be called as secondary-treated wastewater. Secondary treatment is the portion of a sewage treatment sequence removing dissolved and colloidal compounds measured as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). Secondary treatment is traditionally applied to the liquid portion of sewage after primary treatment has removed settleable solids and floating material. Secondary treatment is usually performed by microorganisms in a managed aerobic habitat (however, it can also be an anaerobic process). Bacteria and protozoa consume biodegradable soluble organic contaminants (e.g. sugars, fats, and organic short-chain carbon molecules from human waste, food waste, soaps and detergent) while reproducing to form cells of biological solids. Secondary treatment by biochemical oxidation of dissolved and colloidal organic compounds is widely used in sewage treatment and is applicable to some agricultural and industrial wastewaters.

Secondary treatment is designed to substantially degrade the biological content of the sewage which are derived from human waste, food waste, soaps and detergent. The majority of municipal plants use aerobic biological processes as a secondary treatment step. To be effective, the biota require both oxygen and food to live. The bacteria and protozoa consume biodegradable soluble organic contaminants (e.g. sugars, fats, organic short-chain carbon molecules) and bind much of the less soluble fractions into floc.

Secondary clarifier at a rural treatment plant

Tertiary treatment[edit]

Overall setup for a micro filtration system

The purpose of tertiary treatment is to provide a final treatment stage to further improve the effluent quality before it is discharged to the receiving environment (sea, river, lake, wet lands, ground, etc.) or reused. More than one tertiary treatment process may be used at any treatment plant. If disinfection is practiced, it is always the final process. It is also called "effluent polishing".

Tertiary treatment is sometimes defined as anything more than primary and secondary treatment in order to allow discharge into a highly sensitive or fragile ecosystem such as estuaries, low-flow rivers or coral reefs.[14] Treated water is sometimes disinfected chemically or physically (for example, by lagoons and microfiltration) prior to discharge into a stream, river, bay, lagoon or wetland, or it can be used for the irrigation of a golf course, greenway or park. If it is sufficiently clean, it can also be used for groundwater recharge or agricultural purposes.


Sand filtration removes much of the residual suspended matter.[10]:22-23 Filtration over activated carbon, also called carbon adsorption, removes residual toxins.[10]:19 Micro filtration or synthetic membranes are also used. After membrane filtration, the treated wastewater is nearly indistinguishable from waters of natural origin of drinking quality (without its minerals).

Lagoons or ponds[edit]

Settlement and further biological improvement of wastewater may be achieved through storage in large man-made ponds or lagoons. These lagoons are highly aerobic and colonization by native macrophytes, especially reeds, is often encouraged. Small filter-feeding invertebrates such as Daphnia and species of Rotifera greatly assist in treatment by removing fine particulates.

Biological nutrient removal[edit]

Nitrification process tank

Biological nutrient removal (BNR) is regarded by some as a type of secondary treatment process,[2] and by others as a tertiary (or "advanced") treatment process.

Wastewater may contain high levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Excessive release to the environment can lead to a buildup of nutrients, called eutrophication, which can in turn encourage the overgrowth of weeds, algae, and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). This may cause an algal bloom, a rapid growth in the population of algae. The algae numbers are unsustainable and eventually most of them die. The decomposition of the algae by bacteria uses up so much of the oxygen in the water that most or all of the animals die, which creates more organic matter for the bacteria to decompose. In addition to causing deoxygenation, some algal species produce toxins that contaminate drinking water supplies. Different treatment processes are required to remove nitrogen and phosphorus.

Nitrogen removal[edit]

Nitrogen is removed through the biological oxidation of nitrogen from ammonia to nitrate (nitrification), followed by denitrification, the reduction of nitrate to nitrogen gas. Nitrogen gas is released to the atmosphere and thus removed from the water.

Nitrification itself is a two-step aerobic process, each step facilitated by a different type of bacteria. The oxidation of ammonia (NH3) to nitrite (NO2−) is most often facilitated by Nitrosomonas spp. ("nitroso" referring to the formation of a nitroso functional group). Nitrite oxidation to nitrate (NO3−), though traditionally believed to be facilitated by Nitrobacter spp. (nitro referring the formation of a nitro functional group), is now known to be facilitated in the environment almost exclusively by Nitrospira spp.

Denitrification requires anoxic conditions to encourage the appropriate biological communities to form. It is facilitated by a wide diversity of bacteria. Sand filters, lagooning and reed beds can all be used to reduce nitrogen, but the activated sludge process (if designed well) can do the job the most easily.[10]:17-18 Since denitrification is the reduction of nitrate to dinitrogen (molecular nitrogen) gas, an electron donor is needed. This can be, depending on the waste water, organic matter (from feces), sulfide, or an added donor like methanol. The sludge in the anoxic tanks (denitrification tanks) must be mixed well (mixture of recirculated mixed liquor, return activated sludge [RAS], and raw influent) e.g. by using submersible mixers in order to achieve the desired denitrification.

Sometimes the conversion of ammonia to nitrate alone is referred to as tertiary treatment. Nitrate can be removed from wastewater by natural processes in wetlands but also via microbial denitrification.[15]

Over time, different treatment configurations have evolved as denitrification has become more sophisticated. An initial scheme, the Ludzack-Ettinger Process, placed an anoxic treatment zone before the aeration tank and clarifier, using the return activated sludge (RAS) from the clarifier as a nitrate source. Influent wastewater (either raw or as effluent from primary clarification) serves as the electron source for the facultative bacteria to metabolize carbon, using the inorganic nitrate as a source of oxygen instead of dissolved molecular oxygen. This denitrification scheme was naturally limited to the amount of soluble nitrate present in the RAS. Nitrate reduction was limited because RAS rate is limited by the performance of the clarifier.

The "Modified Ludzak-Ettinger Process" (MLE) is an improvement on the original concept, for it recycles mixed liquor from the discharge end of the aeration tank to the head of the anoxic tank to provide a consistent source of soluble nitrate for the facultative bacteria. In this instance, raw wastewater continues to provide the electron source, and sub-surface mixing maintains the bacteria in contact with both electron source and soluble nitrate in the absence of dissolved oxygen.

Phosphorus removal[edit]

Every adult human excretes between 200 and 1,000 grams (7.1 and 35.3 oz) of phosphorus annually. Studies of United States sewage in the late 1960s estimated mean per capita contributions of 500 grams (18 oz) in urine and feces, 1,000 grams (35 oz) in synthetic detergents, and lesser variable amounts used as corrosion and scale control chemicals in water supplies.[16] Source control via alternative detergent formulations has subsequently reduced the largest contribution, but the content of urine and feces will remain unchanged. Phosphorus removal is important as it is a limiting nutrient for algae growth in many fresh water systems. (For a description of the negative effects of algae, see Nutrient removal). It is also particularly important for water reuse systems where high phosphorus concentrations may lead to fouling of downstream equipment such as reverse osmosis.

Phosphorus can be removed biologically in a process called enhanced biological phosphorus removal. In this process, specific bacteria, called polyphosphate-accumulating organisms (PAOs), are selectively enriched and accumulate large quantities of phosphorus within their cells (up to 20 percent of their mass). When the biomass enriched in these bacteria is separated from the treated water, these biosolids have a high fertilizer value.

Phosphorus removal can also be achieved by chemical precipitation, usually with salts of iron (e.g. ferric chloride), aluminum (e.g. alum), or lime.[10]:18 This may lead to excessive sludge production as hydroxides precipitate and the added chemicals can be expensive. Chemical phosphorus removal requires significantly smaller equipment footprint than biological removal, is easier to operate and is often more reliable than biological phosphorus removal.[17] Another method for phosphorus removal is to use granular laterite.

Some systems use both biological phosphorus removal and chemical phosphorus removal. The chemical phosphorus removal in those systems may be used as a backup system, for use when the biological phosphorus removal is not removing enough phosphorus, or may be used continuously. In either case, using both biological and chemical phosphorus removal has the advantage of not increasing sludge production as much as chemical phosphorus removal on its own, with the disadvantage of the increased initial cost associated with installing two different systems.

Once removed, phosphorus, in the form of a phosphate-rich sewage sludge, may be sent to landfill or used as fertilizer in admixture with other digested sewage sludges. In the latter case, the treated sewage sludge is also sometimes referred to as biosolids.


The purpose of disinfection in the treatment of waste water is to substantially reduce the number of microorganisms in the water to be discharged back into the environment for the later use of drinking, bathing, irrigation, etc. The effectiveness of disinfection depends on the quality of the water being treated (e.g., cloudiness, pH, etc.), the type of disinfection being used, the disinfectant dosage (concentration and time), and other environmental variables. Cloudy water will be treated less successfully, since solid matter can shield organisms, especially from ultraviolet light or if contact times are low. Generally, short contact times, low doses and high flows all militate against effective disinfection. Common methods of disinfection include ozone, chlorine, ultraviolet light, or sodium hypochlorite.[10]:16 Monochloramine, which is used for drinking water, is not used in the treatment of waste water because of its persistence. After multiple steps of disinfection, the treated water is ready to be released back into the water cycle by means of the nearest body of water or agriculture. Afterwards, the water can be transferred to reserves for everyday human uses.

Chlorination remains the most common form of waste water disinfection in North America due to its low cost and long-term history of effectiveness. One disadvantage is that chlorination of residual organic material can generate chlorinated-organic compounds that may be carcinogenic or harmful to the environment. Residual chlorine or chloramines may also be capable of chlorinating organic material in the natural aquatic environment. Further, because residual chlorine is toxic to aquatic species, the treated effluent must also be chemically dechlorinated, adding to the complexity and cost of treatment.

Ultraviolet (UV) light can be used instead of chlorine, iodine, or other chemicals. Because no chemicals are used, the treated water has no adverse effect on organisms that later consume it, as may be the case with other methods. UV radiation causes damage to the genetic structure of bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, making them incapable of reproduction. The key disadvantages of UV disinfection are the need for frequent lamp maintenance and replacement and the need for a highly treated effluent to ensure that the target microorganisms are not shielded from the UV radiation (i.e., any solids present in the treated effluent may protect microorganisms from the UV light). In the United Kingdom, UV light is becoming the most common means of disinfection because of the concerns about the impacts of chlorine in chlorinating residual organics in the wastewater and in chlorinating organics in the receiving water. Some sewage treatment systems in Canada and the US also use UV light for their effluent water disinfection.[18][19]

Ozone (O3) is generated by passing oxygen (O2) through a high voltage potential resulting in a third oxygen atom becoming attached and forming O3. Ozone is very unstable and reactive and oxidizes most organic material it comes in contact with, thereby destroying many pathogenic microorganisms. Ozone is considered to be safer than chlorine because, unlike chlorine which has to be stored on site (highly poisonous in the event of an accidental release), ozone is generated on-site as needed from the oxygen in the ambient air. Ozonation also produces fewer disinfection by-products than chlorination. A disadvantage of ozone disinfection is the high cost of the ozone generation equipment and the requirements for special operators.

Ozone wastewater treatment requires the use of an ozone generator, which decontaminates the water as ozone bubbles percolate through the tank.

Fourth treatment stage[edit]

Micropollutants such as pharmaceuticals, ingredients of household chemicals, chemicals used in small businesses or industries, environmental persistent pharmaceutical pollutants (EPPP) or pesticides may not be eliminated in the conventional treatment process (primary, secondary and tertiary treatment) and therefore lead to water pollution.[20] Although concentrations of those substances and their decomposition products are quite low, there is still a chance of harming aquatic organisms. For pharmaceuticals, the following substances have been identified as "toxicologically relevant": substances with endocrine disrupting effects, genotoxic substances and substances that enhance the development of bacterial resistances.[21] They mainly belong to the group of EPPP. Techniques for elimination of micropollutants via a fourth treatment stage during sewage treatment are implemented in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden[citation needed] and the Netherlands and tests are ongoing in several other countries.[22] Such process steps mainly consist of activated carbon filters that adsorb the micropollutants. The combination of advanced oxidation with ozone followed by granular activated carbon (GAC) has been suggested as a cost-effective treatment combination for pharmaceutical residues. For a full reduction of microplasts the combination of ultrafiltration followed by GAC has been suggested. Also the use of enzymes such as the enzyme laccase is under investigation.[23] A new concept which could provide an energy-efficient treatment of micropollutants could be the use of laccase secreting fungi cultivated at a wastewater treatment plant to degrade micropollutants and at the same time to provide enzymes at a cathode of a microbial biofuel cells.[24] Microbial biofuel cells are investigated for their property to treat organic matter in wastewater.[25]

To reduce pharmaceuticals in water bodies, "source control" measures are also under investigation, such as innovations in drug development or more responsible handling of drugs.[21][26] In the US, the National Take Back Initiative is a voluntary program with the general public, encouraging people to return excess or expired drugs, and avoid flushing them to the sewage system.[27]

Sludge treatment and disposal[edit]

Sewage sludge treatment describes the processes used to manage and dispose of sewage sludge produced during sewage treatment. Sludge is mostly water with lesser amounts of solid material removed from liquid sewage. Primary sludge includes settleable solids removed during primary treatment in primary clarifiers. Secondary sludge separated in secondary clarifiers includes treated sewage sludge from secondary treatment bioreactors.

Sludge treatment is focused on reducing sludge weight and volume to reduce disposal costs, and on reducing potential health risks of disposal options. Water removal is the primary means of weight and volume reduction, while pathogen destruction is frequently accomplished through heating during thermophilic digestion, composting, or incineration. The choice of a sludge treatment method depends on the volume of sludge generated, and comparison of treatment costs required for available disposal options. Air-drying and composting may be attractive to rural communities, while limited land availability may make aerobic digestion and mechanical dewatering preferable for cities, and economies of scale may encourage energy recovery alternatives in metropolitan areas.

Sludge treatment in the sewage treatment of Birsfelden.

Onsite sewage treatment[edit]

For municipal wastewater the use of septic tanks and other On-Site Sewage Facilities (OSSF) is widespread in some rural areas, for example serving up to 20 percent of the homes in the U.S.[28]

Design aspects[edit]

Odor control[edit]

Odors emitted by sewage treatment are typically an indication of an anaerobic or "septic" condition.[29] Early stages of processing will tend to produce foul-smelling gases, with hydrogen sulfide being most common in generating complaints. Large process plants in urban areas will often treat the odors with carbon reactors, a contact media with bio-slimes, small doses of chlorine, or circulating fluids to biologically capture and metabolize the noxious gases.[30] Other methods of odor control exist, including addition of iron salts, hydrogen peroxide, calcium nitrate, etc. to manage hydrogen sulfide levels.[31]

Energy requirements[edit]

For conventional sewage treatment plants, around 30 percent of the annual operating costs is usually required for energy.[2]:1703 The energy requirements vary with type of treatment process as well as wastewater load. For example, constructed wetlands have a lower energy requirement than activated sludge plants, as less energy is required for the aeration step.[32] Sewage treatment plants that produce biogas in their sewage sludge treatment process with anaerobic digestion can produce enough energy to meet most of the energy needs of the sewage treatment plant itself.[2]:1505

In conventional secondary treatment processes, most of the electricity is used for aeration, pumping systems and equipment for the dewatering and drying of sewage sludge. Advanced wastewater treatment plants, e.g. for nutrient removal, require more energy than plants that only achieve primary or secondary treatment.[2]:1704

Small rural plants using trickling filters may operate with no net energy requirements, the whole process being driven by gravitational flow, including tipping bucket flow distribution and the desludging of settlement tanks to drying beds. This is usually only practical in hilly terrain and in areas where the treatment plant is relatively remote from housing because of the difficulty in managing odors.[33] [34]

Co-treatment of industrial effluent[edit]

In highly regulated developed countries, industrial effluent usually receives at least pretreatment if not full treatment at the factories themselves to reduce the pollutant load, before discharge to the sewer. This process is called industrial wastewater treatment or pretreatment. The same does not apply to many developing countries where industrial effluent are often not treated and enter sewers, or even receiving water bodies, without (pre-)treatment.[citation needed]

Industrial wastewater may contain pollutants which cannot be removed by conventional sewage treatment. Also, variable flow of industrial waste associated with production cycles may upset the population dynamics of biological treatment units, such as the activated sludge process.

Alternative options[edit]

Only some cities in sub-Saharan Africa have all residents connected to sewers and sewage treatment plants. Instead, most urban residents in sub-Saharan Africa rely on on-site sanitation systems without sewers, such as septic tanks and pit latrines, and fecal sludge management in these cities is an enormous challenge.[35]

In Iran, the majority of Tehran's population has totally untreated sewage injected to the city's groundwater.[36] However, the construction of major parts of the sewage system, collection and treatment, in Tehran is almost complete, and under development, due to be fully completed by the end of 2012.


The outlet of the Karlsruhe sewage treatment plant flows into the Alb

If not overloaded, bacteria in the environment will consume organic contaminants, although this will reduce the levels of oxygen in the water and may significantly change the overall ecology of the receiving water. Native bacterial populations feed on the organic contaminants, and the numbers of disease-causing microorganisms are reduced by natural environmental conditions such as predation or exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Consequently, in cases where the receiving environment provides a high level of dilution, a high degree of wastewater treatment may not be required.

Raw sewage is also disposed of to rivers, streams, and the sea in many parts of the world. Doing so can lead to serious pollution of the receiving water. This is common in developing countries and may still occur in some developed countries, for various reasons - usually related to costs. Sewage contains nutrients that may cause eutrophication of receiving water bodies; and can lead to ecotoxicity.

Ships at sea are forbidden from discharging their sewage overboard unless three miles or more from shore.[37]

Effects on surface waters[edit]

Sewage treatment plants can have significant effects on the biotic status of receiving waters. Nutrients concentrations are typically elevated and can have a significant impact on the trophic level.

Phosphorus limitation is a possible result from sewage treatment and results in flagellate-dominated plankton, particularly in summer and fall.[38]

A phytoplankton study found high nutrient concentrations linked to sewage effluents. High nutrient concentration leads to high chlorophyll a concentrations, which is a proxy for primary production in marine environments. High primary production means high phytoplankton populations and most likely high zooplankton populations, because zooplankton feed on phytoplankton. However, effluent released into marine systems also leads to greater population instability.[39]

For disposal into the ocean, environmental treaty requirements have to met. As international treaties often manage water over countries' borders, wastewater disposal is easier in bodies of water found entirely under the jurisdiction of one country.

For example, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Kabul River receives about 1 m3/sec of untreated wastewater, and it has been proven to be a causing factor for the contamination of the river.[40] Water pollution from detergent residue has become a problem.[41] The chemicals surfactants in detergent cannot be degraded unless they are in the presence of specific microorganisms.

Scientific studies have demonstrated that very low levels of specific contaminants in wastewater, including hormones (from animal husbandry and residue from human hormonal contraception methods) and synthetic materials such as phthalates that mimic hormones in their action, can have an unpredictable adverse impact on the natural biota and potentially on humans if the water is re-used for drinking water.[42][43][44] In the US and EU, uncontrolled discharges of wastewater to the environment are not permitted under law, and strict water quality requirements are to be met. (For requirements in the US, see Clean Water Act.)



Increasingly, people use treated or even untreated wastewater for irrigation to produce crops. Cities provide lucrative markets for fresh produce, so are attractive to farmers. Because agriculture has to compete for increasingly scarce water resources with industry and municipal users, there is often no alternative for farmers but to use water polluted with sewage directly to water their crops. There can be significant health hazards related to using water loaded with pathogens in this way. The World Health Organization developed guidelines for safe use of wastewater in 2006.[45] They advocate a 'multiple-barrier' approach to wastewater use, where farmers are encouraged to adopt various risk-reducing behaviors. These include ceasing irrigation a few days before harvesting to allow pathogens to die off in the sunlight, applying water carefully so it does not contaminate leaves likely to be eaten raw, cleaning vegetables with disinfectant or allowing fecal sludge used in farming to dry before being used as a human manure.[46]

Reclaimed water[edit]

Water reclamation (also called wastewater reuse) is the process of converting wastewater into water that can be reused for other purposes. Types of reuse include: urban reuse, agricultural reuse (irrigation), environmental reuse, industrial reuse, planned potable reuse, de facto wastewater reuse (unplanned potable reuse). For example, reuse may include irrigation of gardens and agricultural fields or replenishing surface water and groundwater (i.e., groundwater recharge). Reused water may also be directed toward fulfilling certain needs in residences (e.g. toilet flushing), businesses, and industry, and could even be treated to reach drinking water standards. Treated wastewater reuse for irrigation is a long-established practice, especially in arid countries. Reusing wastewater as part of sustainable water management allows water to remain as an alternative water source for human activities. This can reduce scarcity and alleviate pressures on groundwater and other natural water bodies.[47]

Global situation[edit]

Share of domestic wastewater that is safely treated (in 2018)[48]

Few reliable figures exist on the share of the wastewater collected in sewers that is being treated in the world. A global estimate by UNDP and UN-Habitat in 2010 was that 90% of all wastewater generated is released into the environment untreated.[49] In many developing countries the bulk of domestic and industrial wastewater is discharged without any treatment or after primary treatment only.

Another study in 2021 estimated that globally, about 52% of wastewater is treated.[50] However, wastewater treatment rates are highly unequal for different countries around the world. For example, while high-income countries treat approximately 74% of their wastewater, developing countries treat an average of just 4.2%.[50] Wastewater that is discharged untreated into the environment can cause water pollution.[51] Therefore, improving wastewater treatment across the globe is crucial for reducing our pollution to the environment and achieve water quality improvements.

In Latin America about 15 percent of collected wastewater passes through treatment plants (with varying levels of actual treatment). In Venezuela, a below average country in South America with respect to wastewater treatment, 97 percent of the country's sewage is discharged raw into the environment.[52]

Global targets[edit]

Sustainable Development Goal 6 has a Target 6.3 which is formulated as follows: "By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally."[48] The corresponding Indicator 6.3.1 is the "proportion of wastewater safely treated".


Basic sewer systems were used for waste removal in ancient Mesopotamia, where vertical shafts carried the waste away into cesspools. Similar systems existed in the Indus Valley civilization in modern-day India and in Ancient Crete and Greece. In the Middle Ages the sewer systems built by the Romans fell into disuse and waste was collected into cesspools that were periodically emptied by workers known as 'rakers' who would often sell it as fertilizer to farmers outside the city.

Modern sewerage systems were first built in the mid-nineteenth century as a reaction to the exacerbation of sanitary conditions brought on by heavy industrialization and urbanization. Baldwin Latham, a British civil engineer contributed to the rationalisation of sewerage and house drainage systems and was a pioneer in sanitary engineering. He developed the concept of oval sewage pipe to facilitate sewer drainage and to prevent sludge deposition and flooding.[53] Due to the contaminated water supply, cholera outbreaks occurred in 1832, 1849 and 1855 in London, killing tens of thousands of people. This, combined with the Great Stink of 1858, when the smell of untreated human waste in the River Thames became overpowering, and the report into sanitation reform of the Royal Commissioner Edwin Chadwick,[54] led to the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers appointing Joseph Bazalgette to construct a vast underground sewage system for the safe removal of waste. Contrary to Chadwick's recommendations, Bazalgette's system, and others later built in Continental Europe, did not pump the sewage onto farm land for use as fertilizer; it was simply piped to a natural waterway away from population centres, and pumped back into the environment.

Early attempts[edit]

One of the first attempts at diverting sewage for use as a fertilizer in the farm was made by the cotton mill owner James Smith in the 1840s. He experimented with a piped distribution system initially proposed by James Vetch[55] that collected sewage from his factory and pumped it into the outlying farms, and his success was enthusiastically followed by Edwin Chadwick and supported by organic chemist Justus von Liebig.

The idea was officially adopted by the Health of Towns Commission, and various schemes (known as sewage farms) were trialled by different municipalities over the next 50 years. At first, the heavier solids were channeled into ditches on the side of the farm and were covered over when full, but soon flat-bottomed tanks were employed as reservoirs for the sewage; the earliest patent was taken out by William Higgs in 1846 for "tanks or reservoirs in which the contents of sewers and drains from cities, towns and villages are to be collected and the solid animal or vegetable matters therein contained, solidified and dried..."[56] Improvements to the design of the tanks included the introduction of the horizontal-flow tank in the 1850s and the radial-flow tank in 1905. These tanks had to be manually de-sludged periodically, until the introduction of automatic mechanical de-sludgers in the early 1900s.[57]

The precursor to the modern septic tank was the cesspool in which the water was sealed off to prevent contamination and the solid waste was slowly liquified due to anaerobic action; it was invented by L.H Mouras in France in the 1860s. Donald Cameron, as City Surveyor for Exeter patented an improved version in 1895, which he called a 'septic tank'; septic having the meaning of 'bacterial'. These are still in worldwide use, especially in rural areas unconnected to large-scale sewage systems.[58]

Biological treatment[edit]

Edward Frankland, a distinguished chemist, who demonstrated the possibility of chemically treating sewage in the 1870s

It was not until the late 19th century that it became possible to treat the sewage by biologically decomposing the organic components through the use of microorganisms and removing the pollutants. Land treatment was also steadily becoming less feasible, as cities grew and the volume of sewage produced could no longer be absorbed by the farmland on the outskirts.

Edward Frankland conducted experiments at the sewage farm in Croydon, England, during the 1870s and was able to demonstrate that filtration of sewage through porous gravel produced a nitrified effluent (the ammonia was converted into nitrate) and that the filter remained unclogged over long periods of time.[59] This established the then revolutionary possibility of biological treatment of sewage using a contact bed to oxidize the waste. This concept was taken up by the chief chemist for the London Metropolitan Board of Works, William Libdin, in 1887: all probability the true way of purifying sewage...will be first to separate the sludge, and then turn into neutral effluent... retain it for a sufficient period, during which time it should be fully aerated, and finally discharge it into the stream in a purified condition. This is indeed what is aimed at and imperfectly accomplished on a sewage farm.[60]

From 1885 to 1891 filters working on this principle were constructed throughout the UK and the idea was also taken up in the US at the Lawrence Experiment Station in Massachusetts, where Frankland's work was confirmed. In 1890 the LES developed a 'trickling filter' that gave a much more reliable performance.[61]

Contact beds were developed in Salford, Lancashire and by scientists working for the London City Council in the early 1890s. According to Christopher Hamlin, this was part of a conceptual revolution that replaced the philosophy that saw "sewage purification as the prevention of decomposition with one that tried to facilitate the biological process that destroy sewage naturally."[62]

Contact beds were tanks containing an inert substance, such as stones or slate, that maximized the surface area available for the microbial growth to break down the sewage. The sewage was held in the tank until it was fully decomposed and it was then filtered out into the ground. This method quickly became widespread, especially in the UK, where it was used in Leicester, Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds. The bacterial bed was simultaneously developed by Joseph Corbett as Borough Engineer in Salford and experiments in 1905 showed that his method was superior in that greater volumes of sewage could be purified better for longer periods of time than could be achieved by the contact bed.[63]

The Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal published its eighth report in 1912 that set what became the international standard for sewage discharge into rivers; the '20:30 standard', which allowed "2 parts per hundred thousand" of Biochemical oxygen demand and "3 parts per hundred thousand" of suspended solid.[64]

By country[edit]



The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (full title "Council Directive 91/271/EEC of 21 May 1991 concerning urban waste-water treatment") is a European Union directive regarding urban wastewater collection, wastewater treatment and its discharge, as well as the treatment and discharge of "waste water from certain industrial sectors". It was adopted on 21 May 1991.[65] It aims "to protect the environment from the adverse effects of urban waste water discharges and discharges from certain industrial sectors" by mandating waste water collection and treatment in urban agglomerations with a population equivalent of over 2000, and more advanced treatment in places with a population equivalent above 10,000 in sensitive areas.[66]



In India, wastewater treatment regulations come under three central institutions: "The Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), and the recently formed Ministry of Jal Shakti."[67] The various water and sanitation policies such as the "National Environment Policy 2006" and "National Sanitation Policy 2008" also lay down wastewater treatment regulations. State governments and local municipalities hold responsibility for the disposal of sewage and construction and maintenance of "sewerage infrastructure." Their efforts are supported by schemes offered by the Government of India, such as the National River Conservation Plan, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, National Lake Conservation Plan. Through the Ministry of Environment and Forest, India's government also has set-up incentives that encourage industries to establish "common facilities" to undertake the treatment of wastewater.[68]


Currently, Japan's methods of wastewater treatment include rural community sewers, wastewater facilities, and on-site treatment systems such as the Johkasou system to treat domestic wastewater.[69] Larger wastewater facilities and sewer systems are generally used to treat wastewater in more urban areas with a larger population. Rural sewage systems are used to treat wastewater at smaller domestic wastewater treatment plants for a smaller population. Johkasou (jōkasō) systems are on-site wastewater treatment systems tanks. They are used to treat the wastewater of a single household or to treat the wastewater of a small number of buildings in a more decentralized manner than a sewer system.[70]



In Libya, wastewater treatment is managed by the general company for water and wastewater in Libya, which falls within the competence of the Housing and Utilities Government Ministry. There are approximately 200 wastewater treatment plants across the nation, but few plants are functioning. In fact, the 36 larger plants are in the major cities; however, only nine of them are operational, and the rest of them are under repair.[71]

The largest operating wastewater treatment plants are situated in Sirte, Tripoli, and Misurata, with a design capacity of 21,000, 110,000, and 24,000 m3/day, respectively. Moreover, a majority of the remaining wastewater facilities are small and medium-sized plants with a design capacity of approximately 370 to 6700 m3/day. Therefore, 145,800 m3/day or 11 percent of the wastewater is actually treated, and the remaining others are released into the ocean and artificial lagoons although they are untreated. In fact, nonoperational wastewater treatment plants in Tripoli lead to a spill of over 1,275, 000 cubic meters of unprocessed water into the ocean every day.[71]


United States[edit]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]