A collective approach could improve the health of the water chain

The quality of water, in the broadest sense of the word, is under pressure. This means contaminants such as PFAS, nitrogen, micro-organisms, and medicinal residues have disrupted the natural balance, and recovery may not always be possible independently. However, the good news is that the water sector is becoming increasingly aware that the water chain needs a helping hand. So, how are we doing this?


What is the water chain?

The water chain refers to the chain for human use. The water chain (cycle) consists of water production (by drinking water companies and individual water extraction), water consumption (households, companies and institutions), water collection and transportation (municipalities and water boards) and (waste)water treatment (by water boards). In short, production, consumption, collection/transportation and wastewater treatment.

The chain is disrupted when something becomes unbalanced in one or more of these processes. Disruption already occurs when unwanted substances, such as PFAS, are present in too many parts of the chain. When this happens, measures must be taken. This is particularly challenging in the case of PFAS. PFAS stands for ‘Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances’, a collective name for over 6,000 synthetic substances that do not occur naturally. PFAS have useful properties. For example, they repel dirt, grease and water and are found in clothing, textiles, non-stick pans and food packaging.


Not degradable

The main disadvantage of PFAS is that they are difficult to remove once present in the natural environment and, thus, also in water. PFAS do not degrade naturally, and the presence thereof carries negative environmental and health consequences.

However, the presence of PFAS in water is not the only challenge facing water boards, the industrial sector and drinking water companies. Nitrogen can also be found in water. Crops, for example, can absorb nitrogen from fertilisers. If too much nitrogen is in the water, it will enter the water chain in the form of nitrate. This nitrate causes eutrophication, leading to algae growth, water clouding and the decline of larger aquatic plants.  Thus leading to the demise of fish types dependent on clear water and shelter provided by larger plants.


Is it possible to prevent these substances from entering the water chain? No, says Paul Kloet, Deputy Director of Iv-Water: “That may not be a happy message, but it’s not feasible. Substances such as PFAS have penetrated nature to such an extent that it is impossible to remove them altogether. This goes far beyond what is visibly floating on the surface or in the undercurrents of oceans and rivers. PFAS are much smaller than that and cannot be broken down naturally.”


Tackling side streams more efficiently

The industrial sector is working hard to remove PFAS from its (waste)water streams. Iv is active at the Zeeland-based waste processor HEROS. HEROS is a company that makes a valuable contribution to the beneficial reuse of waste streams. These waste streams can contain small or large amounts of PFAS, which is why HEROS has conducted research into the treatment of PFAS. This is now being taken a step further. Paul explains: “Waste arrives at HEROS via many different side streams. If we know which streams usually contain a concentration of PFAS, we can focus on those particular side streams.” This is good news for companies: the technical capabilities are available, but such treatment technology is expensive. The more precise HEROS and similar companies can work, the more efficiently they can operate.

A pilot setup is currently being built at the waste processor, where Iv’s task is to apply the correct treatment technology. “And then we will monitor how it develops. We can learn a lot from this.”

Nitrogen removal

Iv is also active at ATM in Moerdijk. ATM processes hazardous waste and produces circular raw materials from it. Here, the problem is not only PFAS but also nitrogen concentration that is too high. The aim of pre-treatment is to reduce the nitrogen presence to a level that does not interfere with the biological properties and allows the water to be sent to a water treatment plant for further processing, both now and in the future.

These are examples of industrial parties actively and decisively seeking treatment technologies and applications to avoid placing a greater burden on the water chain than is currently the case. There are also many examples of industrial parties collaborating to address challenges together, for example, by pooling wastewater streams to apply better treatment and achieve greater efficiency or using treated effluent directly as process water.

Water boards and water companies are also investing heavily in treatment methods and technologies. A promising sign, says Paul. “The sense of urgency is growing, which is good. We are becoming increasingly aware that we all have a role to play and that it cannot be left to one party alone. We are all responsible for the quality of the water chain and for not interfering with nature.”


The role of water boards and drinking water companies

Industrial effluent is often further treated at municipal water treatment plants. This treatment is vital as it is essentially the chain’s final link before discharge to surface water and prevents harmful substances from entering the environment. Effluent polishing is thereby also an important theme.

Drinking water companies depend on the quality of the groundwater and surface water they use to produce drinking water. Furthermore, the availability of sufficient fresh water is also under pressure.


Partner of the Industrielinqs platform

A few years ago, Iv-Water became a partner of Industrielinqs, a (knowledge) platform that aims to connect interested parties in the industrial sector. Industrielinqs, led by Wim Raaijen (co-author of the book ‘Proactieve Coalities’), is the organiser of the Watervisie event, among others. The platform helps companies to unite and share knowledge and presents opportunities to collaborate. We can focus on common goals, ambitions and responsibilities by forming a coalition.


Paul: “I’m in favour of that too. If we can tackle more major water issues by working together, that would be great. Sometimes, we reach the limits of what we can do and how much nature can take. The natural world can’t work any harder. But we can organise ourselves better within the water sector and tackle problems from there. Because doing nothing is pretty much the worst option.”


Would you like to know more?

Paul, managing director Water, will be pleased to tell you more. Contact him via +31 88 943 3200 or send Paul a message. 

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Paul Kloet