From The Editor | October 17, 2013

A Big Deal For Chicago Wastewater… And The Future Of Nutrient Recovery


By Kevin Westerling,

The world’s largest wastewater treatment plant makes a bold move from nutrient removal to nutrient recovery. Will others follow?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., famous as an environmentalist and even more famous for his ancestry, stepped to the podium at WEFTEC promising a “monumental announcement.” Though such words at press events are often overstatement, this particular announcement lived up to the billing — certainly for the show’s attendees, but also for any wastewater treatment professional, public official, or environmentalist worth their salt.

After setting up the audience with remarks on the importance of recovering nutrients from wastewater, Kennedy delivered the news: Chicago’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant, the world’s largest wastewater treatment facility, is soon to be the world’s largest nutrient recovery facility. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) struck a deal with Ostara to extract phosphorus and nitrogen from Stickney’s wastewater and turn it into commercial-grade fertilizer, with plans to go online in the fall of 2015.

The importance of the design-build project, which also includes Black & Veatch, is illustrated by the following points Kennedy delivered during the speech:

  • Nutrients in waterbodies cause blooms of blue-green algae that are toxic to the environment and humans. Perhaps drawing on the universal concern of public health (while environmental concerns are sometimes demeaned), Kennedy stated that, “We’re not protecting the environment for the fishes and birds, but for ourselves and our communities.”
  • Nutrients are a finite resource, mined mostly from countries overseas (therefore expensive and potentially unreliable). They are also essential for growing food, and thus “even more critical for human life than oil,” according to Kennedy.
  • Kennedy proclaimed (promoted?) the Ostara product as “the highest-quality fertilizer that money can buy, because it is not water soluble.” Unlike other fertilizers, he explained, the nutrients are released only by the citrate contained in plants, so there is no runoff.
  • Nutrient recovery is an “elegant solution” to phosphorus regulations, as opposed to the “really bad environmental solution” of chemical flocculants.
  • Disposal fees for nutrient-laden sludge, which the Stickney plant sometimes hauls nearly 7 hours away for disposal (to Newburg, IL), are effectively eliminated by the recovery process. Instead, the plant is expected to produce 10,000 to 15,000 tons of Crystal Green fertilizer per year.

While this deal should have significant impact for the Chicago area, its greatest effect may be the ripple effect — how it influences other municipalities to get on board with nutrient recovery.

“The adoption of this technology by this plant is a brazen, bold, and far-sighted act by the commissioners and (MWRD Executive Director) David St. Pierre,” said Kennedy. “To have a plant of this size step up and say ‘we’re going to do something different’ bucks the trend of ‘safe,’ conventional treatment.”

Early adopters of new technologies are indeed vital to an industry in need of more efficient, sustainable solutions, but one that is also naturally (and understandably) risk-averse. After all, failed “experiments” in the world of water treatment are costly on many levels — for human health, the environment, and the pocketbook.

There is no more visible wastewater facility than Stickney, so hopefully MWRD’s “brazen, bold” example will open the floodgates (apologies to Rahm Emanuel and his Chicago stormwater initiative) for the widespread adoption of innovative approaches to wastewater treatment.