Bottoms Up: a Systems Approach to Wastewater Regulation

Hey everyone,

Now that we’ve got a decent understanding of what’s in wastewater and why it’s dangerous, this week I’d like to discuss the importance of its regulation and treatment, and how we should be approaching this.

Let’s start with a couple of good news stories, and I use that term loosely here.

  1. The Mayans – In order to allow dense population growth, the Mayans built a big, expensive water reservoir. The population soared to levels beyond the capacity of the reservoir, leading to significant loss of life (according to this study).
  2. Drop Toilet Adventure – In a valiant attempt to rescue his mate’s phone, a Norwegian man found himself stuck in the bottom of a drop toilet.

So what can we learn from this?

  1. A comprehensive, system-wide water management strategy is critical to a civilisation’s survival.
  2. Systems need to be not just user-friendly, but idiot-proof.
  3. We need to plan ahead for future circumstances: not just build a bigger water reservoir, nor jump straight into the proverbial drop toilet.

A Brief Intro to Regulatory Frameworks

A regulatory framework is a structure used to implement, monitor, or control specific guidelines to meet a defined objective or purpose. As wisegeek puts it:

“A regulatory framework is a model people can use for reforming and enacting regulations in an effective and logical way.”

The first and most important step in developing a regulatory framework is defining a clear purpose. From here, rules are developed to ensure this vision is met. Finally, the enforcement methods are outlined to ensure people follow the rules. These can be either incentives to do the right thing, penalties for doing the wrong thing, or a combination of both.

It seems to me that this is a dictatory (probably not a real word… sue me) approach, that is, it dictates to people what they must or mustn’t do so the government can achieve its vision: top down. top downThe two main problems with this are that: (i) governments are formed and reformed every three years in Australia making policy writing slow and unstable, and; (ii) people don’t like being told what to do.

I think it is illogical for top down regulation to be a driver for innovation and change. It is impractical and frustratingly slow. Not convinced? Have a look at our government’s climate change policy.

We need a faster driver than government or intergovernmental policy. We need a bottom up approach where the community both demands and enacts change, forcing industries and producers to introduce and meet higher standards. bottom upBut how to apply this to wastewater?

Wastewater Regulation

Let’s take a look at the consumer-wastewater cycle to get a better understanding of the process we are regulating.

consumer water cycle

The current framework for regulation of waste dumpage (lol) on a Federal level is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, 2000. This focuses on restrictions to the release of pollutants into commonwealth reserves. It basically says industrial and domestic waste must be disposed of through an official “dumping point” (lol).

Treatment, however, is governed on a State level. In WA, the Health Act (1911) has provisions for the Treatment of Sewage and Disposal of Effluent and Liquid Waste. It prescribes the requirements for installation, operation, and decommissioning of wastewater storage and/or treatment apparatus, including effluent discharge, disposal of biosolids, etc.

These regulatory frameworks are designed to accommodate the wastewater engineering structures adopted in Australia – centralised wastewater treatment plants for urban areas. Or perhaps the engineering practices have developed based on the frameworks. More than likely they have affected each other.  The problem, however, is that with increasing population size and density, this type of regulation encourages big, expensive,
unsustainable upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities. Break up

So what are the alternatives?

I’m glad you asked.

In South Australia, they have developed a hierarchy for waste management; a list of actions for waste mitigation, in order of priority, as follows:

  1. Avoidance of the production of waste
  2. Minimisation of the production of waste
  3. Reuse of waste
  4. Recycling of waste
  5. Recovery of energy and other resources from waste
  6. Treatment of waste to reduce potentially degrading impacts
  7. Disposal of waste in an environmentally sound manner

See Clause 4 (p6) of the South Australian Environment Protection (Water Quality) Policy, 2015 for more details.

This kind of thinking champions the idea that

Wastewater treatment should be an integrated part of the consumer water cycle, not an after-thought.

Personally, I would like to see this kind of framework adopted in all states in Australia (and in countries with similar wastewater infrastructure), as it encourages system-wide consideration of the problem. This decreases the costs of operation, maintenance and future upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities through simple reduction in volume and distribution of workload. It also minimises the social and environmental impacts associated with pollution and environmental degradation of our natural capital!

No longer can we flush and forget.

This puts too much strain on wastewater treatment plants. We need to take back responsibility for our waste. This applies to domestic, commercial, industrial and storm water! Check out my vlog below for a cool application of this.

If we can reduce the number and volume of constituents in our own wastewater, we can reduce the workload of wastewater treatment plants. This frees up funding for improved discharge standards: we will be able to invest more in the screening of constituents that currently move through the treatment process undetected (microplastics and hormones, for example. Check out the useful links section below for more info on these).

Furthermore, by sorting our waste before it becomes wastewater, we provide opportunities for innovative businesses! Check out this Perth company that collects your used cooking oil and grease and converts it to renewable fuel. It even pays you cash money for it! Unfortunately they only service the commercial market at the moment, but the potential is there, especially as the tech for household oil and grease capture and storage becomes more accessible. And that’s just one example!

So, jumping back to our examples, we wanted a system-wide, community driven plan that is scalable or at least compatible with future development in our cities. Let’s not be the guy who gets stuck in the drop toilet. Let’s not be the civilisation that builds a big water reservoir, only to die out of thirst. By taking simple actions as a consumer (sorting your waste, boycotting falsely flushable products, and more),

we can be the change we want to see in the wastewater world.
It starts today, with you!

What do you think? Would you get behind a bottom up movement for system-wide wastewater management? Let me know in the comments.

Cheers, big ears,

– SustainableTim

Illustrations by sustainabletim… I know right? o.O They’re so good…

Useful Links

Find out more about pharmaceuticals in wastewater here.

Also check out the impact of microplastics here.

For tips on what can and can’t go down the drain, look here.

For more info on the wastewater treatment process in WA, click here.

Check out these cool examples of living urban streams.

For more information on ecosystem services, check out this or this.

To find out more about green spaces reducing stress levels, give this a go.



5 thoughts on “Bottoms Up: a Systems Approach to Wastewater Regulation

  1. Awesome blog SustainableTim! Great use of font style and images to help illustrate your ideas, ideas which I believe are quite a simple and easily understood solution to such a complex problem. I was also very interested to learn about Bioworks. Look forward to seeing more of your work.


  2. I think you’re spot on: a bottoms up approach is definitely the way forwards with wastewater regulations and technologies, as well as a system-wide (life cycle) consideration of waste mitigation. Living streams are also a brilliant idea with so many awesome ecosystem services. It’s such a shame they’re not a mainstream idea yet – hopefully it’s only a matter of time. Also I loved your illustrations, they were very informative!


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