But what if that desired result is still unknown? That you may not even know who you’re making the plans for? How, where and when should the activity take place? Is any change necessary at all?

Welcome to the long-term deliberations for our wastewater treatment plants!

Sustainability at the centre

We are constantly in a transition since people have a natural urge for change. However, the nature of this change is also subject to change. Much of the last century has been dominated by increasing the level of prosperity: making life easier, materialism and consuming. Among other things, this has led to production at the lowest possible cost.

We see things gradually shifting now. Ownership becomes less valuable, it is about the experience. Lowest price is not always the goal, sustainable and local is an advantage. Global ambitions are also shifting: we must treat our environment in a more sustainable way. Diversity of species, combating sea level rise and health have become central to sustainable thinking. To this end, climate-positive action and the establishment of a circular economy have become the point on the horizon for achieving change. How do these higher goals become part of the actions of today and tomorrow? What role do wastewater treatment plants play? How do you express this in long-term plans? And how do you deal with short-term disruptions such as Covid-19?

Wastewater is hot

In recent decades, the processing capacity has been the leading factor in the design of our wastewater treatment plants (WWTP). This processing capacity was related to the supply and the effluent requirements. Drawing up a good prognosis of the population development and the expected supply from the industry was sufficient to arrive at an initial design. You also needed a piece of land and you could - so to speak - get started.

Today's reality is different. And rightly so. Wastewater is no longer dirty. Wastewater is hot and happening! It is a source of raw materials, of energy, of opportunities and possibilities. And above all, wastewater is a source of water.

Circularity changes the planning phase

Water is being examined with above-average attention due to its unique properties and the possibilities that lie within it to give substance to the ambitions for taking climate-positive actions. We are even carefully exploring the value of the energy and raw materials in wastewater for a circular economy. These are developments that were not often mentioned until recently. Dream along with me: suppose the value of the raw materials ever exceeds the costs for purification… then high-level sanitation could suddenly become the standard for the entire world!

The potential of wastewater for our health and the climate can only be fully unlocked if a production chain is created. The products must be returned locally (for example heat), regionally (energy), nationally or globally (raw materials). The WWTP is no longer a waste-processing company, but becomes a recycling company, or even call it: a production site.

This shift raises existential questions about the role of the managing organization (this is one of the core tasks of a water authority or water utility), but I don't want to talk about that here. I want to talk about the fact that the planning phase of a large-scale renovation or new construction of a WWTP must be approached in a completely different way in order to unlock the maximum potential.


2050 sounds still very far away. I could be retired in 2050... But 2050 is closer than you think when we talk about increasing the sustainability and lifespan of assets. And it is often this year that is mentioned when we talk about the circular economy. With the need for sustainability, there is an important, and often time-consuming, extra step in the planning process: setting up a value chain. The energy and the products that will be made from the wastewater must find their way into the economy. This is the well-known game of supply and demand. Is there a real demand, if there is no supply yet? And if there is supply, will there (still) be demand?

I think the answer is clear. If you want to achieve a result, you have to make a plan! Working together with the stakeholders involved on a timeline for change.

Piece of cake?

Making plans for the future of your WWTP - preferably beyond - 2050, that take into account the current condition and value of your assets (after all, we have become good asset managers), that take local developments into account (we after all, have to treat the wastewater), which take into account the development of technology (we are after all realists), who take into account the ambitions of our own water authority (after all, we have our own identity), and who do justice to (inter)national legislation and treaties (after all, we are not above the law), that is the challenge. It is a complicated and enormous challenge, but also one that energizes you.

How good is it to know which steps you will take in the next few years to end up on the right side? How nice is it to be able to inform your board what will be invested in five years, what the expectation is for 10 years and to be able to provide a perspective for even further up the road? How nice is it that the transition to a sustainable and circular economy is introduced successfully but gradually, so that opportunities and risks are spread?

That is why I believe that now is the time to cement the visions on energy neutral, climate neutral and circular treatment of wastewater in master plans.

Good plan, sustainable realization

A good master plan provides a clear insight into the current status of the assets for each treatment plant (including the supplying system), it shows external developments and compares them to your own ambitions, it provides an analysis of the viability, sketches scenarios, effects, costs and risks. And leads to a route up to or beyond 2050.

The plan gives direction to your own actions, and the plan gives direction and room for others to act. I am convinced that this external action will certainly make a difference in how our wastewater will become a source of raw materials in the distant future. Because one thing is certain: our wastewater treatment plants will undergo a major metamorphosis in the next 30 years.