From stinky van adventures to restoration projects – the unseen potential of wastewater

Picture this: you’re on a camping trip, enjoying the breathtaking view of one of the most beautiful lakes of Aotearoa New Zealand surrounded by snow-capped mountains, watching the incredible red colours of the sunrise, when suddenly a ghastly smell permeates the air. You quickly discover the source – a full wastewater tank in your camping van that urgently needs to be emptied.

My friend Julia as she is emptying out the wastewater tanks of her van. Photo by Flora Brumen

For those who have not experienced the dreadful smell of such a full wastewater tank, know that this is not easily forgotten. Standing in line at a dumping station, waiting to take your turn to get rid of your own disgusting fluids while someone is emptying their toilet container right in front of you, is a situation that brings shared discomfort to campers.

Now, I may be exaggerating a little now, but you understand my point. Toilet tanks include so many chemicals, that it actually smells better than the tanks that collect just the wastewater from doing the dishes. However, it’s an experience that highlights the less glamorous side of camping but still unites people in their shared discomfort. It reminds us that wastewater is an unavoidable reality that affects us all, every day, not just while camping.

The impact of wastewater goes beyond our noses. Uncontrolled discharge of wastewater poses a threat to human health, native freshwater species and ecosystems. In New Zealand, treated wastewater is often released into waterways or the ocean. Unfortunately, this can contaminate recreational surface waters with harmful bacteria and viruses.

The consequences of this pollution are significant. Many popular swimming spots in Canterbury have been ranked unsuitable for swimming due to high levels of bacteria from human sewage found in the water. Last summer, heavy rainfall events worsened the situation, leading to increased runoff of faecal pathogens. Besides creating severe threats to human health and creating unsuitable recreational areas, the pollution also harms freshwater species and degrades aquatic ecosystems. In fact, a devastating 76% of the indigenous freshwater fish species are endangered or threatened, 46% of all lakes have poor water quality and 45% of New Zealand’s rivers are not suitable for swimming activities.

What if we could turn the tables and use wastewater to actually help save our ecosystems? That’s exactly what a recent study under the direction of Alexandra Meister, a bio-waste scientist from ESR and the University of Canterbury, in collaboration with the Christchurch City Council and Lincoln University, suggests.

The researchers carried out an experiment on Banks Peninsula, where they irrigated a site with native plant species with treated wastewater from the local treatment plant for three years. The research team made an exciting discovery: the native plants experienced significant growth with this wastewater regime. In fact, their plant height increased by an impressive 10% compared to plants not irrigated with treated wastewater.

Site of the field experiment on Banks Peninsula, that was irrigated with treated wastewater. Photo by Meister, Gutierrez-Gines, Robinson (Kiwiscience)

It doesn’t stop there. The soil at the experimental site showed no signs of an increase of potentially harmful elements – beyond what is normal in the soil – that could endanger humans or the environment. There may be exciting possibilities for combining restoration projects with wastewater application to land. By doing so, we could decrease the discharge of wastewater into our water bodies, but also promote the growth of native vegetation, leading to a potential recovery of native biodiversity.

Of course, establishing native plants in these environments can be challenging if the species are not adapted to highly fertile soil conditions that are created by treated wastewater irrigation. One particular native plant, Mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium), was an obvious candidate for this experiment. This species has the ability to eliminate harmful soil pathogens and reduce the amount of nitrate leaking into water. Even though mānuka is not adapted to such nutrient-rich conditions, typically growing in low-fertility soils instead, the species responded well to irrigation and increased their growth.

The success and safety of applying treated municipal wastewater to the land depend on two key factors: the quality of the wastewater and the characteristics of the local environment. Due to these unique considerations, it is crucial that each system is designed to specifically address these factors.

Going forward, the researchers will continue their investigation by exploring various plants and soil types. They will continue to explore different plants and soil types, expanding our understanding of where and how wastewater irrigation can be utilised effectively.

It’s time to shift our perception of wastewater. Instead of viewing it as something unseemly to get rid of, we need to recognize it as a valuable resource that can be multi-purposes. By finding innovative applications for treated wastewater, we can decrease its careless discharge and contribute to saving our environment and ecosystems.

The success of using treated municipal wastewater as a valuable resource shows us how even the unpleasant smelling wastewater from our camper van adventures something associated with an unpleasant smell can turn into the sweet scent of environmental protection and restoration efforts.

This article was prepared by Master of International Nature Conservation student Flora Bumen as part of the ECOL608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

Meister, A., Li, F., Gutierrez-Gines, M. J., Dickinson, N., Gaw, S., Bourke, M., & Robinson, B. (2022). Interactions of treated municipal wastewater with native plant species. Ecological Engineering, 183, 106741.

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