Sludge management sustainability

The development of innovative technologies alone is not enough to guarantee the long term operativity of the urban public water sector. The sustainability of water and wastewater services sector, indeed, should consider in a holistic and farsighted manner the issues related to the environmental, economic and social aspects.

Environmental sustainability

Social sustainability

Economic sustainability

The role played by environmental policies and service regulations


Environmental sustainability

The production of sludge is increasing as water treatment technologies improve. Furthermore, traditional sludge disposal options – as landfill disposal – are losing ground owing to stringent environmental quality targets and bans. Making a virtue out of necessity, utilities strive to identify options for sludge management that properly fit within an environmental sustainability perspective. In this way, utilities also position themselves in a broader discussion related, at a global level, to the concept of Sustainable Development and Circular Economy. In particular, the Waste Hierarchy (introduced by the European also known as Waste Framework Directive) steered lawmakers to maximize resource efficiency, moving from a perception of sewage sludge as a waste to a source of valuable resources.


Social sustainability

Social sustainability focuses on the identification and management of the utilities’ impacts, both positive and negative, on people. In general terms, we identify as stakeholders all the people or organizations that can influence and/or be influences – or perceived themselves as such – by a decision or an activity related to an asset, included utilities. Civil society stakeholders are really important stakeholders for water utilities. The civil society stakeholders are characterized by the absence of an economical transaction with the utilities. Among them, it is possible to identify residents, tourists, farmers, associations of residents and tourists, environmental associations, NGOs, Municipalities, Media, Courts etc.

The social sustainability aims at protecting the health of the civil society stakeholders: on the one hand, the utility from a legislative – and ethical – perspective must avoid any harmful impact for the stakeholders’ health; on the other hand, the utility could face the necessity of activating compensative or over-performing actions and ancillary services that could be necessary for the specific context. Stakeholders, indeed, are recognized as capable to influence the utilities’ decision, and, to legitimate their operating, utilities’ need the community approval.


Economic sustainability

By economic sustainability we mean the efficient management of treatment plants, to ensure reliable operation by satisfying the level of service required and regulatory requirements.
Innovative plant solutions for wastewater management services imply high capital investments but also operating costs for the management of operations and maintenance to be assumed throughout the life cycle of the plants, which is typically long, that can be much higher compared to investment costs.
To ensure economic sustainability, it, therefore, becomes essential to include in the assessments of technological / infrastructure solutions, together with the assessment of the investment cost (including design, construction and installation costs), an estimation of all operating costs that will characterize the solution under analysis along the operational life (including maintenance and operation costs) and which depend on how it will be managed. In this sense, the definition of the operations and maintenance management models that will be implemented becomes an essential aspect to be consider in the evaluation of plant solutions.
In other words, it is essential for managers to be able to make "informed" evaluations and to transmit their value also demonstrating it in terms of economic convenience. In this regard, the evaluation of the Total Cost of Ownership of the plants becomes an essential tool.


The role played by environmental policies and service regulations

Water utilities make their decisions about water and wastewater services, and sewage sludge management, under the influence of public policies. State’s action in this domain mainly includes the regulation of water and wastewater services that are a natural monopoly. It also consists of environmental policies that aim at reducing at the source and abating the externalities that are generated by water uses, and water and wastewater services.

Today, the economic sustainability of sewage sludge management leans on price regulation of water and wastewater services. Tariffs allow for the costs of sewage sludge management born by the utility, after accounting them as wastewater treatment costs (environmental costs).
Secondly, environmental policy, along with stakeholders’ action, ensures the essential levels of environmental sustainability and health in water and wastewater services, and sludge management. Possible noxious effects of sludge disposal and recovery are reduced at the origin through Command & Control policies. Across management options, standards are set on management processes and limits are put on the composition of sludge and emissions.
Lastly, in Italy, recent changes in price and quality regulation of water and wastewater services established two types of economic incentives to adopt on a broad scale recovery and recycling technologies. The regulatory framework for the technical quality of wastewater treatment service introduced special economic rewards and punishments for incentivizing the maintenance and reduction of sludge landfilling quota. At the same time, price regulation rewards past activities of energy and materials recovery.

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PerFORM WATER 2030 aims to analyze the different sustainability aspects taking into consideration different sludge treatment management options. Particularly, the activities dedicated to economic and social issues examine different technologies currently adopted at across Europe, with different impact from an environmental perspective. Referring to these technologies, we aim at evaluating the management options for the specific technologies and the influence of civil society stakeholders, operations & maintenance and policies & regulation have in the identification and management of the selected option.

Relationships with stakeholders

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Operations & Maintenance

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Regulation & Policies

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