Europeans say yes to drinking recycled wastewater

Acceptance of water and nutrient reuse higher than expected

Does the thought of drinking recycled wastewater disgust you? 

If yes, you are in the minority, according to a new set of European surveys. Conducted as part of the EU-funded NextGen project, the surveys showed that the yuck factor anticipated as a public reaction to wastewater reuse is not as strong as we would have thought. More than 2 500 citizens in the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom were surveyed to determine their views on recycling wastewater for drinking purposes and on recovering nutrients from wastewater to grow food. 

The results suggest that the negative public perception usually cited as an obstacle in large-scale water recycling projects may not be such a big impediment after all. Conducted by NextGen project partner Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, the surveys revealed that 75% of respondents in the Netherlands favour or strongly favour recycling water to produce drinking water. Spain and the United Kingdom were not far behind this surprising figure, with 73% and 67% respectively supporting wastewater reuse. 

Acceptance of food grown using recovered nutrients from wastewater was even higher, with 75% of Dutch respondents once more in favour, compared to 85% and 74% in Spain and the United Kingdom, respectively. “We looked at the drivers behind people’s reactions, and there is a powerful influence from what we call social norms,” observes Dr Heather Smith of Cranfield University in a news item posted on the ‘Smart Water Magazine’ website. “Opinions on both recycled water and food were strongly affected by beliefs in their immediate networks.”

It all comes down to trust

With the urgent need to apply circular economy concepts to water, the research plays a valuable role in assessing public acceptance of wastewater recycling. But what does acceptance depend on? 

According to senior researcher Jos Frijns of NextGen project coordinator KWR Water Research Institute, it depends on the established trust in a utility. “An element in the acceptability of wastewater recycling relates to trust. Trust in the water quality and personal experience but also trust in the organisations delivering the service.” Frijns cites the Netherlands as an example, providing insight into the country’s high support rate for wastewater recycling. “In the Netherlands, there’s high trust in governmental agencies related to environmental control and quality. That helps in citizens trusting reuse initiatives, and that might be a much more important factor in improving acceptability than just informing and educating.” 

While the survey results may alleviate concerns about negative public reactions to wastewater recycling and reuse projects, Dr Smith believes that “there has to be a longer-term strategy of public engagement.” She adds: “Understanding the public perception of these kinds of solutions is only one part of the puzzle.” 

NextGen (Towards a next generation of water systems and services for the circular economy) has brought together water companies, industrial partners, specialised SMEs, research institutes, technology platforms, and city and regional authorities. The aim is to demonstrate innovative circular economy solutions for resource use in the water sector. 

Heather Smith and Jos Frijns.