The Importance of Nutrient Recovery From Industrial Wastewater

Industrial wastewater is often overlooked as a potential source of valuable minerals, however, waste can contain nitrogen, phosphates, and more which can be extracted for further use. In fact, nutrient recovery plays a huge role in environmental sustainability and resource management across all industries, from agriculture to pharmaceuticals, and more.  

What nutrients are present in industrial wastewater?

Industrial wastewater contains a range of nutrients depending on the industry it came from. The most common nutrients found in industrial wastewater include nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), however other essential elements such as potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) may also be present, although in smaller quantities.

These nutrients can come from animal and human waste, the byproducts of chemical manufacturing (including organic and synthetic elements), drilling and oil extraction, and lots more. As wastewater can contain soluble and insoluble pollutants, some nutrients may also be combined with other elements in a solid, liquid, or gas form: increasing the complexity of the recovery process. 

(To learn more about the types of pollutants present in each industry’s wastewater, please see our article on Which Industries Produce The Most Toxic Wastewater.)

How are nutrients recovered from wastewater?

Nutrient removal from wastewater can be achieved through various techniques including anaerobic digestion, physical removal through the use of sedimentation tanks, evaporation and condensation, and more. Following the separation of these components, any toxic substances will also be removed, and eventually, clean water will also be recovered (which can be released back into the environment or recycled).  

LAT Water’s innovative LAT Unit performs these processes in a single cycle and even utilises waste heat generated by the process to supplement energy input and deliver enhanced results for half the operational costs compared to standard wastewater treatment plants

Why do we need to remove nutrients from wastewater?

While nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and salts are essential to sustain our delicate ecosystems, a surplus of these same nutrients can also be fatal. When excessively nutrient-rich wastewater is released into the environment, it can erode rivers, lakes, or coastal areas and disrupt the natural balance through a process called eutrophication whereby nutrients in the water lead to an overgrowth of algae, which in turn depletes oxygen levels, causing the death of aquatic organisms and creating “dead zones” which can take decades to recover. This is why nutrient discharge standards are enforced by strictly local authorities and also why it’s crucial to remove excess nutrients from wastewater prior to releasing it into the environment. 

Alongside this, implementing a system of nutrient recovery helps industries decrease their operational costs and reduce dependence on raw materials and virgin resources – helping contribute to a more sustainable and circular economy and minimising environmental damage

Top key benefits of nutrient recovery from industrial wastewater

  1. Environmental protection

By removing and extracting nutrients from wastewater, the risk of nutrient pollution and eutrophication in water bodies is significantly reduced, as are the chances of negative environmental impact on land. This helps protect biodiversity, preserve aquatic ecosystems, and maintain water quality for potable and recreational uses. Alongside this, treating wastewater effectively can reduce the need for new freshwater resources, improving water provision for our growing population.

  1. Resource conservation

Nutrient recovery is a key step towards a more sustainable future as it reduces the need to mine for raw materials whilst simultaneously contributing to the manufacture of high-quality fertilisers to support crop growth. By reusing extracted nutrients, industries can contribute to the conservation of non-renewable resources and reduce the rate of depletion of these valuable supplies. 

  1. Economic and supply chain support

Alongside the benefits to our natural environment, nutrient recovery also aligns with the principles of a circular economy by transforming waste into valuable resources. Recovered nutrients can be utilised throughout the supply chain across the food and drinks industry, in agriculture for soil conditioner and animal feed, and in life sciences for testing, e.g. in the pharmaceutical industry

  1. Product diversification 

Recovered nutrients can not only be used within the same business or supply chain, but can also be exported to other businesses to support wider industries and contribute to a healthier economy. This opens up opportunities for industries to diversify their product offerings, explore new markets, and build business relationships, as well as reduce startup costs for new businesses and promote local entrepreneurship. 

  1. Operation and cost savings

By recovering valuable nutrients, all industries can benefit from a reduction in cost associated with their wastewater treatment and disposal. Alongside this, removing the water component from waste can supplement freshwater input and reduce the demand for external resources, transport, and pipe maintenance (alongside reducing the weight of waste sludge to be carried off-site, thus reducing costs). LAT Water’s LAT Unit is a world-first in water recovery technology and has been shown to recover up to 95% clean water from wastewater as well as cutting operational costs by half due to its low-temperature technology. 

  1. Energy generation and contribution to net zero

Some nutrient recovery processes (e.g. anaerobic digestion) can produce byproducts such as biogas, which can be crucial for renewable energy generation. Biogas is usually composed of around 50-65% methane gas and around 35-50% carbon dioxide and it’s become a popular renewable fuel in China where over 50 million households are powered by biogas. This can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels over time and help us transition to a net zero future. 

  1. Regulatory compliance 

Wastewater is heavily regulated across the world and many regions have implemented strict regulations regarding discharge limits which include sanctions for discharging wastewater with high nutrient levels. By implementing nutrient recovery processes, businesses can ensure compliance with these regulations and avoid potential penalties which can impact their industry, finances, and internal operations. 

  1. Corporate responsibility 

Alongside abiding by local laws, implementing a nutrient recovery process demonstrates a commitment to sustainable practices and environmental awareness, which is becoming increasingly important to stakeholders. Sustainable businesses are also more eligible for government support, grants, and awards, which can provide additional support for your business.

  1. Improved public perception 

Implementing sustainable processes and technologies can also enhance the reputation of your brand (and industry). Polls consistently show that people care about reducing the impacts of climate change, and in one survey, 88% of consumers said they are more loyal to companies that are committed to building a more sustainable future (as well as being willing to spend more with those businesses).

Nutrient recovery from industrial wastewater plays a vital role in achieving more sustainable resource management and improving environmental protection. By extracting valuable nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, industries can reduce pollution, conserve resources, promote circularity, and generate economic benefits (sometimes even beyond their own industry). Implementing nutrient recovery technologies is not only a strategic move for regulatory compliance but also a step towards building a more sustainable and resilient future. As industries continue to embrace these practices, we can harness the value of industrial wastewater and pave the way for a more sustainable and resource-efficient society.

Contact The LAT Water Team

Meet us in person at the Chemical UK Expo at the NEC in Birmingham on the 10th-11th of May at stand D34.

You can also contact our team on +44 (0)1635 635900 or by emailing info@latwater.com. Download our corporate brochure for more details about wastewater treatment and management solutions.

Elias Elia
08th May 2023