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Keywords:

  • environmental impact;
  • industrial ecology;
  • life cycle assessment (LCA);
  • tertiary treatment;
  • water reclamation;
  • water scarcity

Summary

Continuous population growth is causing increased water contamination. Uneven distribution of water resources and periodic droughts have forced governments to seek new water sources: reclaimed and desalinated water. Wastewater recovery is a tool for better management of the water resources that are diverted from the natural water cycle to the anthropic one.

The main objective of this work is to assess the stages of operation of a Spanish Mediterranean wastewater treatment plant to identify the stages with the highest environmental impact, to establish the environmental loads associated with wastewater reuse, and to evaluate alternative final destinations for wastewater. Tertiary treatment does not represent a significant increment in the impact of the total treatment at the plant. The impact of reclaiming 1 cubic meter (m3) of wastewater represents 0.16 kilograms of carbon dioxide per cubic meter (kg CO2/m3), compared to 0.83 kg CO2/m3 associated with basic wastewater treatment (primary, secondary, and sludge treatment). From a comparison of the alternatives for wastewater final destination, we observe that replacing potable water means a freshwater savings of 1.1 m3, whereas replacing desalinated water means important energy savings, reflected in all of the indicators. To ensure the availability of potable water to all of the population—especially in areas where water is scarce—governments should promote reusing wastewater under safe conditions as much as possible.