Dr. Gerard van den Berg is a geochemist and project manager at the KWR Water Research Institute in the Netherlands. His expertise focuses on drinking water research, and research into water in the circular economy. He is also the official coordinator of the EU-funded Ultimate project, which is developing and optimising water recycling technologies to create a ‘Water Smart Industrial Symbiosis.’ Dr. Kristine Jung is Project Manager at the European Science Communication Institute (ESCI).
Kristine: What would you say has changed during the last 10 or 20 years for the usage of the water?
Gerard: “People have become more aware of the water quality. An important aspect of that is social media, and the other is the ability to measure contaminants in water. The methodology is to measure pollutants in very low concentrations in water, even in much lower concentrations of what could have any effect on human health.
A lot of this information is made available through media and in more recent years even through social media. People have easy access to information on water, especially on water quality. I see that there is also more discussion about safe drinking water and more questions about it, although there is still a lot of trust. But I do see that people are more concerned how we are taking care of our natural environment. We will keep on using and extracting water from our environment. That may lead to shortages of water, to poor water quality, and I see a shift in the concern from people. The droughts we have seen over the last couple of years have opened the eyes for a lot of people that have seen the river levels dropping and have seen quality effects as algae blooms. People are actually able to see the climate change effects of what we are doing, and I think that this helps.”
So why do we need water recycling?
“I would not only talk about water recycling. I think that recycling is part of the answer. It is also part of the circular economy and so you should look at it from the perspective of water and energy and materials.
We’ve used the term wastewater for decades now because it implies that it’s a waste product and it has no value. This is also a barrier for a lot of initiatives. For example, if you would ask people if they would be willing to drink treated wastewater from an urban wastewater treatment plant, a lot of people would say that they would not be willing to drink it. It is a waste product, and they can treat it, but they do not trust it. At the same time a lot of these people are already drinking treated wastewater, because many of our rivers are rain-dominated rivers.
A large period of the year when the rainfall is low and the volumes of water in the river are going down, although the effluent from the wastewater treatment plants and may be up to sometimes 60, 70, 80 percent of the water in the river. This water is used as a source for drinking water, for example. If people are already aware of it or not, they are drinking water which is produced from a source that contains a large percentage of wastewater. Using wastewater streams either from urban wastewater treatment plants or initial wastewater treatment plants for all types of certain industrial processes.”
What needs to be changed from your point of view in terms of water usage?
“In general, I would say that the use of water, either for individuals or for companies, is critical in view of the quantity of water used. They should also consider that water itself is a valuable product. Water is something that comes from nature and we should take care of it. We are all responsible for that as individuals.
There are still parts of Europe where there are a lot of people who do not have access to clean water. I think this is a big challenge ahead of us. A priority is that we do have enough water. But we may need to look for alternative ways to produce this water. We must make this step from a linear approach where we extract water, use it and then throw it away, to an approach where we extract it, use it, recycle and reuse it.
For example, if you are going to reuse water to produce food, there are strict limits for pathogens in the water for example. To rephrase your question before, it would be more in the direction: Do we have enough water of a suitable quality in the future?”
What is a water-smart industrial symbiosis?
“Ultimate will give examples of how water-smart industrial symbiosis will work in practice. The project will show that by applying certain approaches, both technical and social governance, a water-smart industrial symbiosis can be achieved. They will be good examples for others, which can industries, authorities, to further stimulate the development and implementation of similar approaches. That is what I expect from Ultimate. At the same time, this project and its results can support policymakers in Europe, but probably also on national level, in developing policy guidelines for stimulating circular solutions based on actual experiences from Ultimate.”
What makes Ultimate such a unique project?
“ I think the uniqueness of the project is that it works on one of the main policies in Europe to achieve a circular economy towards 2050. The outcome of our project will really contribute to achieving the middle and long-term goals for Europe, especially since the topics we are working on and the cases we are developing are very practical. They may act as good practice examples for the European water energy sector.”
What do you expect from the project?
“With Ultimate we want show to European society, but also to policymakers in Europe, that it’s possible to develop circular systems on different scales, as well as between different sectors. Currently most of these circular initiatives focuses on one specific sector or one specific industry; so either public or private companies are interested in reusing wastewater in their own production schemes, for example. What’s much more complicated is when you combine the waste streams; either if it is water, or materials, or energy from one sector to another sector, so wastewater from an industry being used in a nearby other industry. The locations we have chosen to demonstrate the potential for achieving these goals will create a symbiosis between different industries, what we call an ‘industrial symbiosis.’ If we are successful achieving these goals in our project, it would be a very good step in developing similar projects throughout Europe.
What would you say are the main innovations in Ultimate?
“We conceive that for different situations you will need different technologies. For the water treatment techniques we are developing in Ultimate there will be a lot of innovations. Both in the sense of new technologies being applied, but also technologies being applied in a different setting, which will be on top of the technology innovation on the governance aspects. The collaboration between industries requires a different governance approach.
I also expect a lot of innovation on the business development side. We see in the project that in certain cases already new types of businesses have been set in place, for example, which take care of the water and energy for a certain industrial site with different industries, which is different than the original approach of a water company and an energy company providing water and energy.
This is very interesting to explore further. We see in many countries that the development of the water-consuming and energy-consuming industries aim to be less dependent on external utilities providing water and energy. The most obvious one is that a lot of companies are using solar panels to provide energy for their own processes. Another example are the greenhouses in the Netherlands: they collect their own rainwater and treat it to a quality that they need for growing their crops. By combining greenhouses with industries there are new approaches and new types of businesses developed to assure that the water and the energy to go to these types of companies. Those businesses can be public and private, can be a partnership, public private partnerships, and different types of solutions are developed.
A good example is to see that the local governments and the regional governments play an important role in these developments.”
Why do we need such projects as Ultimate?
“I would say that water is still a scarce product worldwide. We should feel responsible for taking care of our resources as much as we can. For example, in the Netherlands we use ground water for drinking water that is thousands of years old. For every litre we extract from deeper groundwater reservoirs we should wait a couple of thousand years before that is again to the level of today. We should be aware we cannot limitlessly make use of our natural resources.
In many regions in Europe, we see the effects of droughts and we see that these effects have serious consequences for the crops and for nature. We have seen the direct effects from the way we deal with our water. We must be aware that finding other ways to produce and use water is very important. Our water resources will not last forever. It may last for 20 years, but it will not last for our grandchildren or their grandchildren and for this we should feel responsible.”
Would you like to give three examples on what we can do better?
“I think it is very important to communicate about this for social acceptance. It is very important for every decision we make that people are aware of why a drought is a potential problem. This understanding of the natural system around us is needed to make public political decisions for the future.
The second step is to promote with the water users that there is a need for collaborative actions to solve the problems. It is not only agriculture, or the drinking water companies, or industries who should solve it. I strongly believe that with simple solutions and simple techniques you can all already make a big change. But if we are working towards longer term solutions, you must stimulate the cooperation between the different actors and stimulate them working together to find solutions that are beneficial for them all.
A third step would be supporting innovations. A lot of expertise we have developed over the years dealing with water treatment and collection is based on the effects of climate change. We have developed solutions that are still based on these linear systems that we’ve always applied. I think there is a strong need to support innovations not only on the research side, but also making this link from research to practice.”
This interview has been published for ‘Ultimate Water Talks – Interview with the coordinator Gerard van den Berg from KWR in the Netherlands’. Interviewer: Dr. Kristine Jung, Project Manager at the European Science Communication Institute (ESCI). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.