Sustainable development of wastewater infrastructure, GT Daigger, D Burack, V Rubino

Wastewater management and sustainability, GT Daigger, D Burack, V Rubino

Pollution prevention applies to wastewater treatment, KN Irvine, TR Hersey Jr, MC Rossi, J Caruso, JE Jordan

Educating for sustainability, A Ahmadi

Energize with state-of-the-art technologies, BR Klett, RJ Wilson

Sustainability for New York's drinking water, TA Endreny

The “greening” of the building industry, MA Stallone

Water conservation in a water-intensive industry, G. Wainwright

Sustainable design at NYCDEP, P Zimmerman, J Tyler, VJ DeSantis,N Ramanan

People and places

  Fall 2001 — Vol. 31, No. 3

Wastewater management and sustainability

by Glen T. Daigger, Dave Burack, and Vincent Rubino

Sustainability calls for balance.

An environmental management system can assist an organization toward sustainability in its day-to-day operations. Environmental management is considered here using ISO 14000. For facilities design, the use of green building principles and a rating system can promote sustainability.

Environmental management with ISO 14000

Environmental management is a set of practices traditionally associated with industries that use hazardous materials, generate hazardous waste, or discharge pollutants to the air or water. Initially, environmental management was implemented to provide safe working environments and to support compliance with permits and other regulatory requirements. Other goals for environmental management now are avoidance of fines, cost-savings from waste reduction, environmental stewardship, and good public relations. One approach to environmental management is the international set of standards referred to as ISO 14000.
Sustainability can be expressed in the design and operation of new wastewater treatment facilities.

ISO is an international nongovernmental organization that promotes the development and implementation of voluntary international standards. In the U.S. the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) represents ISO.

ISO 14000 standards are voluntary and were established to create a common worldwide approach to management systems leading to the protection of the environment while spurring international trade and commerce. When implemented, the standards promote consistency in environmental management practice, harmonize national environmental standards in an international framework, and offer guidelines for environmental management excellence. Even though the standards do not prescribe performance levels, performance improvements are typically achieved by an organization committed to environmental care. In implementing the standard, employees are trained and made aware of the policies in place to protect the environment.
ISO 14000 addresses environmental management systems, auditing, monitoring, performance evaluation, and life-cycle assessment.

ISO 14001 contains the benchmarks an organization must attain to receive ISO certification. The ISO 14001 system is cyclic, beginning with setting an environmental policy and followed by planning, implementation, and feedback. Progress is continually checked with corrective action taken when necessary. The organization's top management reviews the program's efficacy and continued relevance of the policy and plan. At the end of each cycle, policies and programs are reviewed and revised as necessary. Implementation includes structure and responsibility, training, awareness, competency, communication, environmental management system documentation, document control, operational control, and emergency preparedness and response.

Mitsubishi and ISO 14000

Establishing a strategic plan first strengthens the sustainability attributes of an ISO 14001 program. Mitsubishi Electric America used The Natural Step (see preceding article) in combination with ISO 14001.(1) ISO 14001 was used to define what the plan would address, but The Natural Step defined why the aspects would be addressed. This approach substantially changed Mitsubishi's perspective of what aspects to include and its assessment of its effect on the environment.

A backcasting exercise determined which aspects were significant. Mitsubishi then used the framework for backcasting to set objectives and targets both at the corporate and at the plant level. The objectives and targets provided a structure for balancing and integrating business and ecological concerns. The plant-level targets include 25% energy reduction, 30% waste disposal reduction, and 75% to 90% reduction in use of virgin paper.

The Mitsubishi example is instrumental for wastewater treatment operations. Many plants operating in the U.S. are the product of a Federal grant program that partially funded their construction. One objective of the program was to control capital costs. This approach seemed valid even if a present-worth analysis indicated a lower overall cost for an alternative with a higher capital cost. In retrospect, this approach may have led to operational inefficiencies in some cases. Combined with current-day technology advancements and improved knowledge of design, construction, and operations, there may be significant potential for process optimization with resultant environmental and economic benefits.

Municipalities and ISO 14000

Although numerous industrial facilities and organizations have certified their operations under ISO 14001, only a handful of wastewater treatment facilities or organizations are certified to-date. Currently, the USEPA is funding pilot projects to assess the applicability of ISO 14001 to local governments.(2) Through this program, municipalities may find an opportunities to improve operational efficiencies.

The O&M Division of the San Diego Metropolitan Wastewater Department became, in 1999, the first such organization to be certified. With its environmental policy in place, the MWWD sets and periodically reviews the Division's environmental objectives and targets for each of its facilities, including a water reclamation plant, wastewater treatment plant, biosolids center, and pumping stations.

MWWD O&M first determined to seek ISO 14001 certification in response to competition from private firms. It used the central business planning cycle format of the environmental management system to create a more competitive organization. Using an environmental management system made sense for an environmental business organization. Certification meant defining environmental aspects of the Division's operations that could affect the environmental, from both inputs and outputs. The planning and implementation took about 1 year; it received certification in May 1999.

The certification process allowed the Division to define and improve programs, even programs that it believed were already performing well such as the recycling program. For example, officials discovered that the white paper collected in the recycling program was usually contaminated by beverage cans or garbage. The recycling contractor refused to pay for the loads. The MWWD O&M employee who collected and transported the paper eventually learned to take all of the paper to the landfill for disposal. When this situation was revealed through the gap analysis, the recycling contractor was replaced. (Gap analysis, part of the ISO process, identifies disparities between where a corporation is and where it wishes to be.)

The new contractor collects the paper for free and recycles it, despite incidental contamination of the loads. The benefits from this change are the actual recycling that is occurring and a cost-savings of about $50,000/yr from eliminating almost one full staff position plus the disposal fee for the paper. If this were the only improvement resulting from the environmental management system, it would pay for the initial program within 3 years.

MWWD O&M has realized several other benefits, including improved emergency preparedness and greater proof of responsibility toward the customers through improved recordkeeping and transparency of procedures. Other benefits are the mechanisms for identifying nonconformance and constructive change, avoided cost through risk reduction, Plant process optimization and reductions in energy use and miscellaneous chemicals were other areas targeted for improvement as a result of the analysis conducted for ISO 14001 certification.
Through ISO 14001, MWWD demonstrates its commitment to action beyond regulatory compliance to include pollution prevention and continual environmental improvement everyday.

Perhaps the greatest benefit was the marked change in the organizational culture. The ISO 14001 requirements for continual improvement and internal education has resulted in improved operations and the competitive edge that was the initial driver for the program. MWWD O&M considers the program to be a sound business management program and an excellent path for public agencies.(3)

Sustainability indicators for the wastewater sector

To evaluate progress toward the goal of sustainable development, quantitative indicators, sometimes called metrics, are popularly used to define and track the values and production elements that are important to an organization. Indicators are an essential component in a management system and complement the other components such as monitoring, reporting, and feedback. Indicators can be a powerful tool for change and improvement. As with indicator species in natural systems, these metrics are evidence of existing or changing conditions.

Developing indicators

The process of creating usable indicators begins by defining an organization's influence on its world. Three categories could be posited: the environment, the economy, and society—with sustainability desired in each area. From these categories, subelements, criteria, subcriteria, and indicators can be derived through a process of refinement to specify precisely which aspects of sustainability will be addressed by the organization.

The refinement places general objectives in the context of wastewater infrastructure management. This process is presented in tables below. Some of the indicators reflect the fundamental role of wastewater systems (for example, to safeguard public health). Others display change to allow for a more diverse system architecture or institutional structure.

The policy guide on planning sustainability developed by the American Planning Association addresses providing for human needs fairly and efficiently through cleaning, conserving, and reusing wastewater at the site, neighborhood or community level, thereby reducing the need for large expensive collection systems and regional processing facilities.(5) This policy appears to be a response to future scenarios that suggest a very different role needed for wastewater service providers, one of centralized management of decentralized systems spread through a service area. For arid regions and others where water shortages are a concern, this may offer a solution to diminishing supplies because wastewater recycled onsite reduces demand for fresh water supplies and redistributes the cost of the recycling.(6)


Sustainable development is an avenue for creating new thinking processes and solutions to wastewater treatment services without conflicting with environmental health, human well-being, and the economic bottom line. But much depends on the management framework of the service's organization. Sustainable development integrates the natural environment into management theory, a component typically absent but now essential.

Several models and tools are available to blueprint the integration including policy statements, planning guides, environmental management systems such a ISO 14001, green building guides, rating systems, and the use of indicators. By bringing sustainability into organizational thinking and culture, the wastewater sector can participate better in the stewardship of society and the environment, accommodate change from population growth, affluence, and technology, and continuously refine the system architecture.

Criteria and examples of indicators for sustainability

Source: Barbara R. Bradley and Glen T. Daigger, 1999. Decision-making for Sustainable Development of Water Infrastructure. Presented at the USEPA 6th National Drinking Water and Wastewater Treatment Technology Transfer Workshop, Kansas City, MO. August 2-4 1999.
Social sustainability, Subelement: Institutional development
Criteria Subcriteria elements Quantitative indicators (examples)
Flexibility and sustainability of infrastructure work
Management opportunities for multifunctional use
Opportunities to adapt to changing circumstances
Improved technical and organizational efficiency
Opportunities for a phased development
Opportunities for multifunctional use and management to respond to changing conditions
Sustainable quality of structures (corrosion, wear)
Opportunities for rehabilitation of the original situation (autonomous regeneration, active reconstruction and restoration).
Ratio of staff hired to staff required to maintain infrastructure
Number of institutional barriers to promote new ways to get more water use from less water through cooperative responsibility sharing among water, wastewater, and public health agencies
Level of environmental management system with monitoring, record keeping, and feedback loops

Social sustainability, Subelement: public health
Criteria Subcriteria elements Quantitative indicators (examples)
Promote public health, safety, and well-being Effects on public health
Effects on safety (risks)
Effects on annoyance/hindrance (smell, dust, noise, crowding)
Effects on living and working conditions
Number of reported incidences of water-borne disease
Number of regulatory violations
Presence of risk management and emergency response plans that meet the standard of practice
Measured level of nuisance (noise, odor, traffic, etc.)

Social sustainability, Subelement: socio-cultural aspects
Criteria Subcriteria elements Quantitative indicators (examples)
Empower diverse stakeholders Share authority for determining infrastructure development and use, including use for economic gain Extent of institutional and legal instruments allowing onsite reuse of wastewater (e.g., for economic gain)
Promote public participation Stakeholder involvement in planning and decision-making outreach and information Number of stakeholders represented and participating in decision-making process
Safeguard societal virtues Public trust Number of avenues to provide transparency in decision making processes and operations
Promote social mobility and cohesion Upward-mobility opportunities for disadvantaged groups
Social resilience and stability
Number of students participating in agency-sponsored youth programs to promote social mobility (e.g., high school programs to expose disadvantaged youth to careers in operations, engineering, and public administration)
Strengthen cultural identity Effects on cultural heritage
Avoid sprawl-inducing growth
Extent to which policies or actions support preservation of traditional livelihoods, activities, and land use patterns

Social sustainability, Subelement: equity
Criteria Subcriteria elements Quantitative indicators (examples)
Equitable distribution of benefits and responsibilities Effects on income distribution
Effects on educational opportunities
Equitable distribution of resource
Equitable distribution of services
Number of water supply shut-offs
Effectiveness of rate structure to accommodate public health needs of poverty-stricken users
Number of sewer backups per neighborhood

Economic sustainability, subelement, economic development
Criteria Subcriteria elements Quantitative indicators (examples)
Local and larger-scale economies Effective use of resources and infrastructure for local economic prosperity
Ability to foster stable, diverse, and resilient economic base
Effect of local resource use on others' economies
Number of businesses that the agency helped to use onsite or off-site recycled water
Amount of water flow available to down stream communities

Economic sustainability, Subelement: cost-efficiency
Criteria Subcriteria elements Quantitative indicators (examples)
Cost efficient distribution and use of resources Cost efficient distribution of resources
Cost efficient use of resources
Effect of cost burden on local economy
Ratio of cost for the level of treatment to number of gallons used that actually require that level of treatment
Gradient of rate structure to promote water conservation
Ratio of average cost of service to median household income

Environmental sustainability, Subelement: ecosystem integrity and biodiversity
Criteria Subcriteria elements Quantitative indicators (examples)
The use of natural and environmental resources (including raw materials) and discharge of wastes must fall within the carrying capacity of natural systems
Enhance and conserve natural and environmental resources, and even improve the carrying capacity of natural and environmental resources
Raw materials and energy
Waste discharges (closing materials cycles)
Use of natural resources (water)
Effects on resilience and vulnerability of nature
Water conservation
Accretion of land or coast
Improvement and conservation of soil fertility
Nature development and conservation of natural values
Flow quantity and variability versus required flows to maintain the ecosystem carrying capacity of the source water
Number of measures to lower energy use instituted in equipment selection, construction practices, operations, and by contractors
Number of sensors used to reduce energy consumed by nonessential uses

Environmental sustainability, Subelement: global environmental issues
Criteria Subcriteria elements Quantitative indicators (examples)
Avoid negative effect on global resources Air quality effects, particularly greenhouse gases
Effect on fisheries
Materials consumed by operations and administration
Quantity of carbon dioxide emitted from WWTP operations
Number of fish species and their populations in receiving water
Tons of polymer and paper purchased and volume of solid waste disposed per year

Glen T. Daigger, Dave Burack, and Vincent Rubino (corresponding author) are with CH2M Hill.


1. Brian Natrassan and Mary Altomare, 1999. The Natural Step for Business: Wealth, Ecology, and the Evolutionary Corporation. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: The New Society Publishers, 1999.

2. ANSI, 2000.

3. Personal communication with Linda Jones, MWWD O&M environmental management representative. June 9, 2000.

4. Personal communication with Chris Toth, Operations manger for MWWD O&M. June 14, 2000.

5. American Planning Association. “APA Policy Guide on Planning for Sustainability.” Jan. 8, 1998, revised Jan. 10, 2000.

6. Bradley, Barbara R., 2000. Sustainable Water and Wastewater for the Mexico-United States Border. Presented at “Border Institute II,” Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy, Rio Rico, Arizona. April 17-19, 2000.

7. Bradley, Barbara R. and Glen T. Daigger, 1999. Decision-making for Sustainable Development of Water Infrastructure. Presented at the USEPA 6th National Drinking Water and Wastewater Treatment Technology Transfer Workshop, Kansas City, MO. August 2-4 1999.

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