Water is a mission-critical resource for industrial firms, and wastewater treatment makes up an important component of many company’s water-management strategy. Increasing water scarcity and stress, along with ever-stricter government regulation, compel industrial firms to seek out ever-more-efficient systems for treating their wastewater.
How do manufacturing and industrial firms treat their wastewater? Although we’re discussing industrial wastewater treatment here, the best place to start is describing conventional treatment processes. Nearly any industrial plant will need to process sewage — graywater and human waste — either through an in-house plant or by feeding it to a municipal facility. For any enterprise large enough to need its own wastewater facilities, the default system would be more or less based on the three stages of primary, secondary, and tertiary treatment.
However, a manufacturing or industrial plant will require that standard model to be altered or augmented, depending on the types of processes carried out at the facility. Michelle Hamm, environmental manager at Monadnock Paper Mills in Bennington, N.H., told me in an interview that “for municipal plants, their largest issue is parasites, things like E. coli. But in industrial treatment systems, each waste stream is different, depending on the actual chemicals used in the facility.” For example, Monadnock’s operations produce large volumes of short paper fiber, so the plant’s sludge-handling process is crucial. Monadnock recovers and treats its sludge in such a way that it can be used by local agriculture for topsoil.
The basic kinds of wastewater treatment processes are physical, biological, and chemical. Physical processes remove solids by such means as screening, skimming and settling. In biological processes, bacteria and other organisms are used to consume organic matter. Chemical processes can be used to act on pollutants in ways that allow them to be more easily removed from wastewater.
A primer from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains the three conventional steps in wastewater treatment:
- Primary treatment removes coarse solids from wastewater after preliminary screening for large floating objects. In a sedimentation tank, suspended solids settle to the bottom, forming primary sludge, which is usually removed using mechanical equipment.
- In secondary treatment, organic matter is removed using biological processes. According to EPA, the two most common methods for secondary treatment are attached growth processes, in which microbial growth occurs on the surface of a plastic or stone medium; and suspended growth processes, in which microbial growth takes place suspended in the water, which is aerated or agitated to introduce oxygen.
- Tertiary treatment (a.k.a., advanced treatment) refers to any treatment processes employed after secondary treatment before discharge into the environment. Tertiary treatment can involve filtration, disinfection, odor control, and removal of elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus.
Pretreatment Diverts Contaminants in Advance
The conventional three-stage wastewater treatment process can be negatively affected by toxic chemicals in the waste stream. Such chemicals can disrupt the functioning of standard wastewater processes or can end up being harmfully discharged into the environment.
EPA says, for example, that “chromium can inhibit reproduction of aerobic digestion microorganisms, thereby disrupting sludge treatment and producing sludge that must be disposed of with special treatment.” If they find their way into wastewater, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can cause gases or vapors to build up in sewer head spaces, sometimes resulting in explosions. Chemical reactions in wastewater can cause poisonous gases to form. Cyanide and acid, says EPA, “both present in many electroplating operations, react to form highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas.” Similarly, “sulfides from leather tanning can combine with acid to form hydrogen sulfide.”
For these reasons, industrial facilities often have to use pretreatment processes to remove such compounds from wastewaters prior to conventional treatment. Pretreatment in the U.S. is a highly-controlled process falling under the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA). EPA, in partnership with state governments and publicly-owned treatment works (POTWs) have the responsibility to regulate a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which issues permits for industrial firms that emit wastewaters.
Background materials from Munich, Germany-based Siemens AG stress that industrial wastewaters are highly-specific to the facility. Impurities could include “acidic [chemicals] from a plating process, colorings, acids, oils and fats from food processing, or the presence of organic chemicals, such as pesticides, paints, dyes, or detergents.” Pretreatment processes, says Siemens, “can be as simple as chemical addition or as complex as the integration of multiple unit processes for a complete water treatment system.” Pretreatment equipment can be purchased directly or operated on-site through a service contract.
Siemens cites the case of a utilities company in Texas that had a problem with copper levels substantially higher than those allowed under its NPDES permit. Siemens provided an ion exchange system for removal of heavy metals. The system uses 30-cubic-foot vessels containing cation resin to remove copper from the facility’s wastewater. Siemens is contracted to remove the vessels periodically and take them to a special facility for recovery of the copper and regeneration of the resin. Siemens says that “all residuals from the regeneration process are sent for secondary treatment and recovery” and that “no waste goes to a landfill.” Siemens then ships the regenerated resin back to the utility for reuse.
Tertiary Treatment Provides Final Polishing
As I mentioned above, tertiary treatment really refers to any final advanced treatment processes that prepare wastewater for discharge into the receiving environment, such as a river, lake, wetland, or the ground. Such processes might include further filtration, lagooning, land treatment, or removal of nutrients or other substances. According to Siemens, tertiary treatment technologies “can be extensions of conventional secondary biological treatment to further stabilize oxygen-demanding substances in the wastewater, or to remove nitrogen and phosphorus.” Such advanced treatment can also involve “physical-chemical separation techniques such as carbon adsorption, flocculation/precipitation, membranes for advanced filtration, ion exchange, dechlorination, and reverse osmosis.”
Under appropriate circumstances, land treatment can be a beneficial, lower-cost tertiary alternative. EPA refers to land treatment as “the controlled application of wastewater to the soil where physical, chemical, and biological processes treat the wastewater as it passes across or through the soil.” The most common land-treatment technique is slow rate infiltration, using the treated wastewater for irrigation. Most nutrients are used by plants, while “other pollutants are transferred to the soil by adsorption, where many are mineralized or broken down over time by microbial action.”
Constructed wetlands are another tertiary strategy. My recent article on green infrastructure detailed three cases of engineered wetlands constructed by The Dow Chemical Co., Alcoa and Shell Petroleum Co. Shell built a constructed wetland at one of its oil fields in Oman, where its wells were bringing up large volumes of water along with the oil. The wetland uses reed beds to filter the water. Microbes break down the oil underground. Not only can such green infrastructure projects provide cost-effective tertiary treatment, but they also create wildlife habitat while eliminating harmful pollutants.
I talked about Dow’s wetlands projects with Gena Leathers, who manages the company’s corporate water strategy. Dow’s subsidiary Union Carbide built a 110-acre wetland at a fraction of the cost of a conventional gray-infrastructure treatment system. Leathers told me that the purpose of the wetland “was to provide a finishing step to reduce solids in the effluent to meet permit requirements. This system, she said, “saved the company many millions of dollars while providing value to nature.” She stressed that “there are many things companies can do to help the company and nature at the same time.”