Roughly 71% of the Earth may be covered by seas and oceans, but the water we need to sustain life is comparatively scarce. Groundwater, rivers, lakes, and streams provide the water we use for everything from drinking and bathing to irrigating fields, but they make up less than 1% of Earth’s total water.
As demand increases, so does the depletion of these natural water sources. Meeting the needs of the towns, cities, and farmland all over the planet will require a shift in how we think about water. Rather than diverting more from other sources, we can make better use of our existing water through recycling.
What is water recycling?
Water today is being pumped from the ground and drained from rivers and lakes at a remarkable rate. But where does it all go once it’s been collected? Most of it is used for irrigation and industrial processes, with a relatively small amount dedicated to our personal daily needs.
Water recycling is any process that returns this “used” water to a system where it can be drawn from again. Some types, like returning treated wastewater to a river or lake, are considered “unplanned” recycling methods, since the water isn’t intended for immediate reuse.
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Other types, like using wastewater to irrigate crops, are known as “planned” water recycling. These processes are quite diverse, and can include everything from using wastewater to cool industrial machines to techniques like rainwater harvesting, which diverts runoff into storage tanks for later use.
Most of these systems involve eventually releasing water back into the natural environment but in some dramatic examples–the International Space Station, for instance–closed systems can reclaim nearly all water used and purify it over and over again.
Why recycle water?
The benefits of recycling water go beyond reducing waste. Recharging aquifers with recycled water keeps drinking water available, and can also prevent geologic settling as emptied aquifers collapse in on themselves. In coastal areas, depleted aquifers draw salt water in from the ocean, contaminating what fresh water remains and making it unusable.
Recycling water also removes pollutants that would otherwise end up in the environment. For some uses, this makes recycled water even better than its untreated counterpart. When highly purified water is needed, it’s more efficient to use wastewater, which already requires treatment, than to purify additional water.
In addition to keeping the environment clean, water recycling can even help repair some of the damage done by water diversion and development. Wetlands are home to diverse ecosystems of plants and animals, but are often very sensitive to human activity. Releasing recycled water into wetlands can help revitalize these habitats and preserve their role in the local environment.
The future is recycled
Humanity is rapidly approaching a point where drawing more water from the environment will not be sustainable. Costs are already rising for individuals and companies alike, not to mention the impact our habits have on the environment. Water recycling provides the solution to all these issues.
The required technology is well established and increasingly cost effective. Improved options for closed-loop recycling are becoming available on larger and larger scales. Though no potable water reuse is already very common, potable reuse is gaining acceptance as safety precautions improve and the need increases.
In the future, it’s easy to imagine homes, office buildings, or even entire cities able to keep water flowing in an endless closed loop of use and reuse. Aquaponics farms are already using the nutrient-rich water from tank-raised fish to grow organic, hydroponic greens, and cycling the cleaned water back into the fish tanks. Plans for new, eco-friendly communities are building water recycling technologies into their infrastructure from the start.
For now, though, smaller recycling initiatives can still have a big impact. Even something as simple as rainwater harvesting cuts down on daily waste. Take a look at your own water usage and see what recycling can do for you!
Bob Gorman is a freelance blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @bob_gorman82.
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