Wastewater treatment: how much untapped wealth?

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Wastewater treatment: how much untapped wealth?

Posted on 18 January 2016 by Editorial team
Posted in Innovation, Spotlight, Utility management, Wastewater Management, Water and wastewater community,

Cordell Samuels has a message that he wants wastewater treatment professionals everywhere to hear regarding wastewater: there is untapped wealth in wastewater.

Samuels, whose 32-year professional career in wastewater management was highlighted by a term as Water Environment Federation President in 2012-13 believes that governments have been viewing the wastewater treatment process incorrectly for too long.

“We need a paradigm shift in the way we think of wastewater,” says Samuels. “We need to stop looking at wastewater management purely from a cost point of view, and start seeing the energy recovery and other opportunities as well.”

Samuels recalls how seeing incinerated ash being converted into bricks while working at Toronto’s Ashbridges Bay plant in the early part of his career made him realize for the first time that the value of wastewater wasn’t completely being established or understood.


Looking to the present, Samuels notes that a significant opportunity lies within the potential to convert biosolids and/or biogas into energy. This energy could then be used to either run the wastewater treatment facility, or to sell the resultant energy into a power grid as a way of offsetting energy costs.

Samuels is quick to point out that the idea of creating a sort of closed-loop system in terms of energy generation and usage, is an idea rooted as much in the past as it is a way to look to the future. As an example, he points to his time at Toronto’s Humber Treatment Plant, where they ran their aeration with energy created within the facility. Today, the use of half-blowers to him seems to be more of a step back, and he’d like to see municipalities look towards capturing, creating and using energy once again.

From an environmental perspective, this approach would have a net positive impact as well, if one considers that biogases are typically burned off anyway.

When looking for an example from which to draw inspiration, Samuels suggests that California has become home to many new energy recovery initiatives within wastewater treatment facilities. For example, the East Bay Municipal District Utility plant in Oakland has 11 megawatts of biogas-fuelled generating capacity, which is greater than the demand from the plant itself. The extra energy generated is then sold off, creating added revenue and savings to the municipality.


In Bristol, England, wastewater bio-methane gas is now being used to propel a growing fleet of public transportation buses within the city. These buses, affectionately known as “Poo Buses,” are earning the city international recognition for their innovative approach and utilization of a natural by-product that stems from the wastewater treatment process.

Another opportunity that Samuels sees in wastewater relates to the recovery and reuse of phosphorous. The need for phosphorous in humans is unquestioned, however the acquisition of phosphorous via mining of phosphate is finite. Phosphorous found in urine and human waste when not captured is then discharged into local water systems, which then can create additional environmental problems such as the development of algae.

Capturing the phosphorous before discharging wastewater could net both environmental and economic benefits. Samuels notes that the realization of this is beginning to take hold in areas such as Chicago and other US jurisdictions, but the potential remains largely untapped.

Cordell Samuels is now retired from his career, having last served as Plant Superintendent for the Regional Municipality of Durham, located just east of Toronto. However, his passion and desire to see a shift in the thinking that municipalities associate with wastewater management is undeniable and ongoing.

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