Go back to main page
CONFESSIONS OF A MICROBIOLOGIST
FluksAqua Community, Spotlight, Uncategorized, Wastewater Management,
When I interviewed Alistair Marsh last week, a microbiologist and father of two, it was immediately apparent that Alistair is a real passionate of all water things, from power boating, to tropical fish and wastewater treatment. Alistair started his career in the industrial wastewater sector 24 years ago as a lab technician for a papermill company in the UK. Alistair told me that he immediately fell in love with the job “There is something quite pleasant about working at a wastewater treatment plant at two in the morning.”
WASTEWATER, AN UNDERVALUED INDUSTRY AND PROFESSION
Alistair now works as a Consultant, Training Provider and Sales Representative of anaerobic digestion products in the UK, Chile and the USA. He wishes he could still work at a wastewater treatment plant, but says that unfortunately the profession is undervalued and underpaid. Alistair explains that this is a legacy of how the industry used to be 50 years ago. Nowadays, a university degree is often required to work in the sector, but salaries have not followed. “It is unfortunate because people who work in the wastewater industry are truly dedicated professionals” says Alistair. He believes that “the industry has five years to replace those about to retire and make the profession attractive to the new generation.” Alistair explains how in the United States, the pay grades are not equivalent between states, which means that operators sometimes have to take a pay cut to transfer to a different plant.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES TOWARDS WATER AND WASTEWATER
Nadia, FluksAqua: Do you raise awareness about wastewater issues within your own community?
Alistair: The general public I avoid because I get frustrated.” The public has no idea what goes into water and wastewater treatment. They believe that “water falls from the sky” and wastewater does not exist because it is below ground. The public is not ready to pay a few pounds for treated water but they are okay paying a lot for gasoline.
BIG CHANGES IN OUR INDUSTRY
Nadia, FluksAqua: What are the biggest changes that you have experienced during your career?
Alistair: There have been three important changes in our industry: legislation ensuing public demand for increasing water quality, both drinking and treated wastewater, the improved number of women working in the wastewater industry, and technology. Technology with automation and real-time control has been a game changer. Instead of having to travel 3 hours to go onsite, we can now see and control equipment directly from our computer stations.
Nadia, FluksAqua: What challenges lay ahead for the industry?
Alistair: Getting water. We have less access to water and we are demanding more. Water production for agriculture is energy intensive, and with drier summers in places like the South West of England and Kansas in the US, the industry will have to quickly develop adapted technology. For wastewater, it is the investment that is holding back.
THE MICROSCOPE IS YOUR FRIEND
Nadia, FluksAqua: Is there a topic that you would like to raise awareness about with the wastewater community?
Alistair: Yes. Microbiology is important. Plants are designed for physico-chemical treatment, but the process is biological. It is astounding to see that some plants do not even have a microscope. When something goes wrong with your process you have to talk to the locals, that is, the bacteria and the protozoa, they will tell you a lot about the loading conditions. Unfortunately, some plants simply do not have the budget to have a proper microscope, and when they do, the staff has had negligible training on how to use them and how to identify the organisms they are looking at to understand what they mean.
KEEPING IN TOUCH WITH THE WASTEWATER COMMUNITY
When FluksAqua first connected with Alistair, he was not familiar with the FluksAqua Forum. He used to connect to waterwastewater.com a similar platform to FluksAqua, which no longer exists. Alistair was therefore quite happy to find out about the FluksAqua Forum and welcomed the idea of being able to exchange and easily keep in touch with an international community.
Nadia, FluksAqua: what advice would you give to new operators?
To those considering a career in wastewater, Alistair half jokingly advises them to “run for their lives”, because “once you are in it, it gets a hold of you.” He recommends the younger generation to go in with an attitude of learning and listening – “you can learn a lot very quickly, and there is not one way of doing things.”
Looking for your next career move?