Acceptance of water and nutrient reuse higher than expected

Survey amongst 2500 citizens in UK, Spain and The Netherlands

Cranfield University surveyed over 2,500 citizens in the UK, Spain, and the Netherlands about recycling wastewater to produce drinking water (‘direct potable use’) and the recovery of nutrients from wastewater to grow food. The survey showed that the expected ‘yuck factor’ among the public regarding wastewater reuse is weaker than expected.

In the Netherlands, 75% of respondents are (strongly) favour reusing water as drinking water. In Spain and the UK this is 73% and 67% respectively. The acceptance for consumption of food grown with recovered nutrients from wastewater demonstrated to be generally even higher: in the Netherlands again 75% of respondents are in favour of growing food with recovered nutrients, in Spain and the UK 85% and 74% respectively. According to Heather Smith, senior lecturer in Water Governance at Cranfield University, the reason is that people perceive a more vital link between drinking water and wastewater than between recovered nutrients and food. “When we looked at the drivers of these responses, we found a strong influence of social norms. Opinions about reclaimed water and food were strongly influenced by what others believed in their social network.”

Open to water reuse

The researchers performed the research to assess acceptance as more and more projects involving water reuse are being investigated. It is often argued that the public has a negative perception of water reuse. The research showed that citizens are more open to water reuse than the water sector believed so far.

The surveys were part of the NextGen collaboration, a four-year Horizon2020 (H2020) project that aims to stimulate the circular economy through a wide range of water-related resources recovery, including water, energy and materials. NextGen brings together 30 organisations to demonstrate technological, business and governance solutions for water in the circular economy.

A matter of trust

Jos Frijns, team leader of Resilience management & Governance at KWR, says acceptance depends on the established trust in a utility. “The acceptability of wastewater recycling has to do with trust: trust in the water quality, trust in the organisations providing the service and also with past experiences.” He added: “In the Netherlands, there is a lot of trust in government agencies that deal with environmental control and quality. That helps to build citizens’ trust in reuse initiatives, and that might be a much more important factor in accelerating acceptance than just informing and educating.”

From survey results to strategies

Frijns says there has been a recent shift in water reuse, especially in the public sector. “Five years ago in the Netherlands, the suggestion of direct potable reuse of wastewater would certainly have been seen as a no-go. The water industry would say that the general public would not want it. However, that mentality is now shifting.”

Frijns expects that the results of the surveys will feed into long-term strategies for public engagement in water recycling projects. “This new insight will help to reduce the perception that the public will react badly to water reuse projects. However, there needs to be a long-term strategy for public involvement. Understanding public perception of water recycling solutions is only one part of the puzzle,” Smith adds.

Heather Smith and Jos Frijns.