Water conservation remains a popular global issue. For years, revolutionary manufacturers have worked vigorously to create water-saving products that achieve groundbreaking new heights for the plumbing arena. Some of these efforts are demonstrated by the creation of high-efficiency toilets, faucets equipped with sensor technology to provide “hands-free” and low-flow, and the recent availability of the world’s first hybrid water heater that maintains an 86 percent thermal efficiency rating.

Despite the efforts made by plumbing manufacturers and the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program, water-saving initiatives have recently reached new peaks. Not suprirsingly, several drought-stricken states and highly-populated regions are the areas leading the trend of greywater use. The Environmental Protection Agency says that repairs to wastewater treatment infrastructure will cost more than $200 billion over 20 years and we all know that consumers will be hard pressed to foot the bill. The most affected markets will include Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Miami, and Washington D.C. Perhaps this will change the future of water and the plumbing industry as we know it.

What is greywater?

Greywater is most frequently defined as water captured from the shower, tub, bathroom sink, and the laundry. In some cases, effluent (toilet wastewater or outflow from a sewage treatment facility) is also considered greywater; however its reuse is more complicated and has a lower appeal with consumers and health officials. Non-effluent greywater comprises 50 to 80 percent of residential wastewater. Some benefits of greywater recycling are: less impact from septic tank and treatment plant infrastructure, topsoil nutrification, reduced energy use and chemical pollution from treatment, groundwater recharge and plant growth and reclamation of otherwise misdirected nutrients. Some food for thought: in third world countries, the reuse of greywater is a common practice.

Factors causing new water legislation

Increasing concerns over dwindling reserves of groundwater and locally controlled sources of water has generated enhanced interest in the reuse or recycling of greywater, both domestically and for use in commercial irrigation. Because of the vast benefits of greywater use — especially in times of drought and in urban areas — it is increasingly considered for advancement in helping to achieve sustainable development.

Health and ethical concerns

Not everyone is a proponent of greywater use. Concerns over its potential health and environmental risks, along with ethical concerns of not returning the water back to its origin, are causing obstacles in further acceptance nationwide.

Bacteria poses a threat and [that can lead to trouble,] says Todd Rasmussen, professor of hydrology and water resources at the University of Georgia’s School of Forestry and Natural Resources, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Water from showers, tubs and sinks carries bacteria, he further explains, along with the dangers of hepatitis and AIDS. Kitchen sinks also pose a threat from food processing, and cloth diapers in the laundry can transmit fecal matter. In the article, Rasmussen goes on to point out that he is for water reuse, but he also questions the way to do it so that the grey water doesn’t end up causing a worse health problem than anticipated. He says he would like to see a “move toward refining water to a higher level of purity.”

Philip Proctor, a plumber for 30 years and current plumbing plan review specialist for the city of Atlanta, emphasizes that we shouldn’t rush to expand the definition of usable water. Of greywater, he says, “We’re still a little gun-shy.”

Additionally, shortening river and stream sources are of notable concern, especially in the Atlanta-area. While some residents are not treating their greywater and are using it for irrigation, some experts even recommend against that use. Opponents of greywater use say this is only elevating the problem with neighboring states who share the same sources of water from rivers, streams, etc., but some Atlanta homeowners say that isn’t the case and that “grey water, percolating into the soil, will recharge the ground water, and thus the [river] Chattahoochee. All of our water is a part of one system.”

States are beginning to implement greywater use

The debate on greywater continues to gain momentum. As this is still a developing area for the majority of U.S. states, greywater use is increasingly gaining wider political and consumer support as individuals become educated about safe practices and overall environmental and cost benefits, and due to the underlying fact that water conservation is a growing necessity.

In California’s Orange County, the world’s largest, most modern reclamation plant — a facility that can turn 70 million gallons of treated sewage into drinking water every day — has commenced operation. And, officials say that if the reclamation plant’s full potential is realized, up to 130 million gallons a day could be added to the county’s fresh water supply. This facility’s water currently supplies 2.3 million people in coastal, central and northern Orange County, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times.

In Orange County, water reclamation has not faced much opposition thanks to public awareness and the water district’s extensive marketing campaign: plant tours, neighborhood pizza parties and hundreds of public meetings to explain the process. The outreach effort has resulted in endorsements from elected officials as well as civic, community and environmental organizations.
“We are really just helping ourselves,” said James Ferryman, chairman of the sanitation district board of directors. “Communities are waking up, especially those in semiarid regions. They are beginning to realize that you need reliability in your water supplies.”

What is future of our water?

Although the debate rages on, as more and more consumers, city planners and politicians become educated, facilities like those found in Orange County will soon become the mainstream. In fact, San Diego, San Jose, Texas, Florida, Australia and Singapore have already begun plans to build similar facilities like that in Orange County. We need reliability and more locally centered water supplies; greywater use will accomplish this feat.