It might surprise you to know that how we process wastewater has a long and fascinating history. A logistical problem of centuries past and centuries to come, wastewater treatment has been a critical issue for public health for much longer than you would think.
About how long have wastewater treatment plants been in existence? Buckle up, it’s going to be an interesting journey through the ages.
Back before water infrastructure was too much of a thing, wastewater would be disposed of in a pit if you lived in a rural area, and in the street, if you were unlucky enough to live in a high population city. This held disastrous impacts on public and environmental health, causing rampant diseases like cholera, some of which would take decades or centuries to recover from.
Poor sanitation was an early contributor to the spread of plagues and diseases, and solutions only came forward when technological advancement, politics, and social reforms would all align.
If you’ve ever wondered about how long wastewater treatment plants have been in existence or how dealing with it came to be a problem we’re still dealing with today, then keep reading below:
Sewage In The Ancient World
Archeologists found the first evidence of rudimentary drainage systems in the ruins of Babylonia and other ancient cultures like the Mesopotamian Empire. This dates back to as early as 3500-2500 BC, where there was even evidence found of homes being connected to these systems with their versions of ancient septic tanks.
Despite these early systems, it’s the Roman empire that is most famous for its infrastructure surrounding water and waste. Drawing on the advancements made by cultures before them, the Romans were able to build water services that included things like the collection and disposal of waste.
This infrastructure development was based on one kernel of knowledge the Romans knew to be true: freshwater from springs was better to use than surface water. Making use of better water sources meant fewer diseases and fewer long-term health issues. It’s this understanding that led to the invention of aqueducts and more.
Another thing that made the Romans unique was how they saw water as a valuable but also a limited resource. So much so that they actually ‘recycled’ wastewater from things like baths in order to wash out latrines and other collection areas. This is one of the earliest documented examples of greywater reuse.
Access to these types of resources extended to the provision of public baths, drinking fountains, and latrines across all areas regardless of income.
But what about the modern treatment plants we know today? When did formalized regulations and plants come onto the scene?
Wastewater Treatment In the Industrial Age
Skip ahead several centuries later and we come to the industrial revolution, an age of rapid advancement that included major changes to how wastewater had to be handled.
During this time, city living became popular as higher-paid jobs began to be offered by factories and other urban-based employers. Simultaneously, spiking population numbers meant that pollution from untreated waste was a big concern. After all, open-pit latrines and chamber pots emptied out windows didn’t bode well for growth and advancement.
By the 1800s, the US population grew significantly, which put a major strain on collection systems and disease control. At this point, open drainage systems and pit latrines were replaced by buried sewers and the “treatment” was simply releasing untreated wastewater into open water sources (dilution).
At the end of the century, there had been a few more advancements in terms of basic filtration systems and further sewer construction.
Now, back to the original question: about how long have wastewater treatment plants been in existence? If you’re referring to actual plant treatments similar to what we know today, it’s the early 20thy century.
By the time the Great War had ended, most of the West was measuring the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) and the impact of wastewater on the environment. This also led to the first regulations regarding the sanitation of wastewater.
The Roaring 20s And Beyond
From the twenties onwards towards the 1940s there was an uptick in wastewater treatment, also leading to the presence of by-products like sludge.
It was during this stage that wastewater was linked to a decline in aquatic health and new processing steps were added to try and reduce the impact. Heated sludge digesters and a variety of other methods were applied to the surplus of sludge.
At the dawn of the 50s, a greater focus was placed on government monitoring such as water quality surveys, and more funding was put towards the construction of new treatment plants. This meant that by the time 1960 rolled around, at least half of the US population had been connected to some sort of wastewater treatment. From this point on, it was all about providing citizens with clean, easily accessible water while improving how wastewater plants were operating.
This decade led to the introduction of new nutrient removal processes, chemical conditioners, better solids separation, and more. The result of multiple new methods of water treatment and federal regulation meant that water reuse was becoming more popular.
Wastewater also became a well of new energy sources like biofuels but carried the serious concerns of pollutant removal becoming more key than ever before.
The Rate Of Pollution
It’s clear why pollution became a greater concern as the pressure on wastewater treatment became more intense. As humans have industrialized and populated, they’ve brought more stuff into the world. The issue is this stuff is typically long-lasting, unlikely to degrade naturally, and is actively poisoning the environment.
When you look at the rate of water pollution throughout history, there is a major uptick in pollutants following the Industrial Revolution. With more factories and more farms releasing untreated wastewater directly into natural waterways, irreparable damage has been done to many aquatic ecosystems. These pollutants include heavy metals, toxic sludge, chemical runoff, and worse.
Considering how many Americans are dependent on groundwater as a source of drinking water, it’s essential to consider how past and present pollution is having an impact on public health. If major changes and regulatory enforcement don’t succeed, the country and even the world may at some point have no choice but to rely on polluted water sources for all our needs.
Regulatory Progress In Wastewater Treatment
In the 1970s, Congress passed the Clean Water Act targeted at reducing water pollution. This Act has paved the way for several others to follow, which has also led to better monitoring of our existing groundwater sources.
Still, regulation is not enough to curb all pollutants, and there is still a need for enforcement of rules. This is where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) comes in. By 2006 it had already become clear that numerous municipalities around the country had failed to accurately report their true environmental impact or cease their discharge of polluted wastewater into the environment.
Why would these municipalities and plants risk fudging the numbers? One of the main reasons is cost. To produce water that meets safety standards for environmental release requires multiple treatment steps that require expensive equipment and chemicals on an ongoing basis.
The In-Pipe Technology Difference
Even though we’ve come a long way from the age of pit latrines and basic aqueducts, there are still many challenges to overcome in wastewater treatment. Today, one of those challenges is compliance.
As a plant operator, you know not to panic when there is too much nitrogen in your effluent discharge. Whether the blip was caused by a new industrial user that made a significant dump into your system or a change in the weather, you have a list of adjustments you can make to stay within permit standards.
The time to worry is when the steps you’ve taken to fine-tune your system for years – or even decades – aren’t working anymore.
Being out of balance is not a healthy long-term condition. That’s when regulators with weeks or months of negative data might stop by to discuss your permit status and when local leaders start asking questions and challenging your expertise because they worry the plant’s problems are making them look bad.
That’s where In-Pipe technology can be a game-changer for your plant. The best part? It’s all-natural and builds on what you’ve already established. With In-Pipe, you can create an extra treatment step by using your entire collection system to build the health of your microbial community.
Harnessing the biological reactions that are already happening upstream can give you a much better result – a cost-effective and more predictable effluent compliance program.
In-Pipe Technology offers an innovative natural biological solution to this persistent problem. Unlike other treatment processes, In-Pipe’s product starts working the moment waste enters the collection system, turning it into an efficient bioreactor that keeps on working until the end stages of wastewater in-plant treatment.