The belief there is an endless supply of clean fresh water and an apparent squeamishness about recycled water are serious barriers to better use of the vital resource in UK homes and businesses, experts have warned.
At the first of three meetings entitled ‘Engineering the future of water’, organised by the Engineering the Future alliance, six speakers from academia, industry and agriculture looked into public attitudes to local water recycling, presenting real life examples of water use in the UK and globally.
Professor Paul Jeffrey of Cranfield University said there was a deep rooted reluctance in the UK to use reused or recycled ‘grey’ water in homes and businesses – not suitable for drinking but good for flushing toilets and watering plants. He said: "If you look at the amount of waste water we reuse, it’s almost negligible. If water reuse is to make a more significant contribution, we’ve got a lot of work to do and a key component of that work is making sure that public attitudes to recycling are appropriately understood. We know there’s an instinctive resistance to recycling – often called the ‘yuk factor’. But we also know that the source, the use and the tightness of the reuse cycle are important determinants of public attitudes."
He added: "People don’t seem to mind using their own grey water but they don’t like using their neighbours’ grey water."
Public health concerns of home owners and businesses often prove to be barriers to the take-up of new recycling technology. Dr Ben Courtis of GE Water said that while he could supply equipment to companies which could enable them to use ‘grey’ water in their processes and reduce their use of expensive drinking quality water by 50 per cent or more, manufacturers and buyers believe their brand image would be compromised if they were seen to be using less than top-quality water.
The other major issue identified by the six panellists was the popular public perception that there is a surplus of available water because it rains a lot in the UK. However, Jenny Bashford, from the National Farmers Union warned that after three dry winters, one more could lead to an acute water shortage in 2012. She pointed to the need for us to think about how to make the best use of our blue (rivers, lakes and aquifers) water, green (soil moisture) water and grey (recycled) water.
Stephen Kay of Cambridge Water said the UK public needed a ‘burning platform’ – such as a severe drought – before attitudes would change. He said that only when the public turn on their taps and nothing comes out will they be convinced that reusing and recycling water would be the way forward – the reason why countries such as Australia and Israel are so advanced in their reuse schemes.
Professor Tom Stephenson FREng of Cranfield University highlighted a number of examples of water reuse in other countries, from Australia, where a severe lack of water had spurred them into action; to Singapore, where the reasons were geopolitical; and Japan, where government legislation and financial incentives had forced builders to install recycling systems in new buildings.
It was generally agreed that in order to change public perception, how they are given the facts needed to be re-addressed and that the UK’s engineering and technology base should move reuse and recycling forward.
Summing up, the event chair Michael Norton MBE, Global Director for Urban Water at Halcrow Group and Chair of the ICE Water Expert Panel, said: "What we haven’t yet perceived in this country is that we have a ‘burning platform’ or a water security challenge. When we turn on the tap or flush the toilet it’s easy – we don’t appear to have any problem. But that is despite the undeniable impacts of climate change and population growth, and that 75% of our water footprint is in other countries, some of which are in water stress".
"Our nation does need to take a radical and refreshed view of its total water needs across drinking, agriculture, industry against its current total renewable water resources and I think that water recycling is going to be one of the ways in which we resolve that."