Which Industries Produce The Most Toxic Wastewater?

Industrial wastewater treatment and recycling are two of the most important processes for maintaining water quality and ensuring freshwater availability across the globe

Wastewater treatment typically involves managing one or more input streams and decontaminating them to create a single stream of clean water and a separate collection of solids and other pollutants (which may include metals and organic material). This process prevents industrial pollution and sewage/sludge from entering water systems and protects ecosystems from coming into contact with toxins

Quite often, industrial wastewater is released back into the environment following treatment, however, depending on the industry, it can also be reused as a water input stream which can improve operational efficiencies by reducing waste disposal. This type of wastewater recycling also makes production processes cheaper, less fuel-intensive, and more sustainable – which is why it’s encouraged as part of green initiatives

As our team at LAT Water works with all sectors and provides services for clients across the globe, we’ve experienced – firsthand – some of the challenges of managing toxic substances in wastewater produced by the world’s largest industries including:

Battery Manufacturing 

Battery manufacturing is a highly complex process that requires the use of many hazardous (and even carcinogenic) metals and chemicals including nickel, lead, copper, lithium, and arsenic. Although the European Parliament is looking to ban the production and use of non-rechargeable batteries, more and more devices are now using lithium-ion batteries – these can be found in most personal devices such as mobile phones, electric toothbrushes, laptops, and even EVs! While wastewater treatment is vital to ensure the safety of water used throughout production, it can also be a challenge to make this water safe due to the number of different compounds and the byproducts of their reactions. It’s estimated this industry produces over 87 tons of waste every year.

Electric Power Plants

Electric power plants generate wastewater from their cooling systems and this wastewater can contain pollutants such as nitrogen, sulfur, and heavy metals. Due to the nature of the water requirements in electric power plants, wastewater recycling is highly encouraged in this industry as it reduces the need for new fresh water and reduces the cost associated with operations as all output wastewater must be treated before being released into the environment. Therefore, conserving the treated water instead of discarding it means it can be reused many times over and the process can become more sustainable instead of wasteful. This industry produces over 380 billion m3 of wastewater globally, every year

Food & Drink Industry

The food industry is one of the main sources of wastewater containing organic components which can include live bacteria, viruses, acids, and more. It’s essential to ensure this type of wastewater is treated effectively and to standard due to the high risk of contamination and disease posed by the presence of organic matter. Wastewaters from the food and drink industry may occasionally require an additional disinfection stage before being released back into the environment.  In the UK alone, 190 million m3 of wastewater is generated every year by the food and drink industry

Iron, Steelworks, and Metals

The iron and steel industry produces large quantities of wastewater contaminated with varying types of toxins such as heavy metals, suspended solids, oil, and grease. Due to the diversity in the composition of these substances, the wastewater treatment process can be particularly challenging. Although metals and other elements may be naturally occurring, the high levels present in the byproducts and wastewater produced by this industry can be fatal to wildlife. Effective wastewater treatment in this industry and its sister industries requires careful management depending on the types of meals being processed as well as the size of the operation. Globally, around 20 million m3 of wastewater is generated by the metalworks industry every year. 

Oil & Gas Extraction

Similarly to the steelworks industry, oil and gas extraction can involve a range of different pollutant types with different consistencies including oils, salts, solids, radioactive materials, and gases. Gases in particular can be a challenge to extract as they can combine with other elements to cause reactions, which can create additional byproducts that also need to be removed from the wastewater stream before it can be safely discharged. Annually, this industry produces over 800 billion gallons of wastewater

Petroleum Refining & Petrochemicals

The wastewater from petroleum refineries can often contain high concentrations of toxic chemicals including hydrocarbons, metals, oils, ammonia, cyanides, nitrogen compounds, and aromatic amines such as aniline. If released into the environment, these can have long-lasting negative impacts on the environment, making the need for wastewater treatment even greater. It’s difficult to estimate the exact amount of wastewater generated by the refinery process, however, gasoline production alone demands around 0.60 – 0.71 gallons of water per gallon of gasoline

Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

Pharmaceutical manufacturing often involves the use of organic and man-made chemicals, most of which can be extremely dangerous when dissolved in water or absorbed into the environment. Due to the nature of the variety of contaminants, additional precautions must always be taken when managing wastewater streams from the pharmaceutical industry. The components present in this type of wastewater often include high quantities of organic matter and bacteria, phosphorous, salts, and a range of solvents including ethanol and acetone, which is extremely flammable. Global estimates for the volumes of wastewater produced are unavailable, however, pharmaceutical waste accounts for one of the largest sources of water pollution across the globe.

Pulp & Paper Manufacturing

The pulp and paper industry is one of the top contributors to wastewater due to the use of synthetic dyes for colour, hydrogen sulfides (which are corrosive), sulphur (which is insoluble), methyl mercaptan (which is harmful in excess and can cause nausea), and over 300 others. This industry produces around 3 billion m3 of wastewater globally every year. 

Contact The LAT Water Team

Meet us at The World Biogas Expo 2023 at the NEC in Birmingham on the 29th – 30th of March. We’ll be available on both days of the conference at stand D205. 

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 solutions.

Elias Elia
06th Feb 2023