Water Utility Pathways in a Circular Economy: Charting a Course for Sustainability
In moving towards a more sustainable world, we are encouraged by policy makers and thought leaders to apply a ‘systems’ approach and seek ‘integration’. For water management, the vague interpretation of these terms makes them meaningless and confusing often leading to apathy and inertia. In the more lucid interpretations of these terms, the scale of systems and complexities of integration make it a daunting proposition. How do we provide a framing that charts a more purposeful course for sustainability?
For water, sanitation and wastewater service providers (‘utilities’), the circular economy could provide the answer. The concept of the circular economy, which aims to decouple economic growth and development from the consumption of finite resources, has emerged in response to the drawbacks of the conventional ‘take-make-consume and dispose’ model of growth. The water sector is possibly the largest untapped sector in contributing to the circular economy, and in a newly published framework from the IWA: Water Utility Pathways in a Circular Economy, transitionary pathways for utilities are described that position them as engines for sustainable growth.
The framework presents three interrelated pathways – water, materials and energy – that aim to help utilities identify integration points within systems that enable their transition to the circular economy. In simple terms, identifying practices, approaches and business models for utilities that can lead to greater efficiency of water use, lower carbon-based energy consumption and providing valuable materials for manufacturing and agriculture. Examples from the framework include energy production at the water distribution network, and recovery of fertilisers or bio-plastics from wastewater.
The pathways specifically address two significant drawbacks for utilities transitioning to a circular economy: an impeding regulatory environment and opaque market conditions. The pathways illustrate the importance of consumer demand and supply chain dynamics in understanding existing and potential market conditions. In regards to the regulatory context, the pathways highlight the inadequacies of existing legislation developed for linear production and consumption patterns.
The good news is that there is a growing realisation of the needs to adapt legislation to boost the circular economy. For example, the recent EU Circular Economy action plan, and the revision of the EU fertiliser regulation, to include struvite and biochar are opening up market opportunities for their use. Such developments are a work in progress, but the importance of the circular economy is gradually dawning upon a broad stakeholder audience, and the IWA framework gives an overview and inspiration to a wide spectrum of solutions that can contribute to make it a reality.
The framework, developed in consultation with members of the IWA network, from the research community and utilities in different geographical settings, is targeted towards decision makers in water utilities and those who enable and support water, sanitation and wastewater services, including regulators, financiers, consultants, industry and researchers.
The IWA framework Water Utility Pathways in a Circular Economy, aims to demystify what a systems and integrated approach to sustainability might mean for water, sanitation and wastewater service providers, assisting them to identify new operational and business models that help them prepare now for the circular economy of the future.