by Alan Beyersdorf

I signed up for the Global Water Alliance (GWA) Symposium 2017 at the University of Pennsylvania via Facebook; venue the Wharton School. Hmm, that means business--a relatively uncharted territory for me. Numbers. Charts. Graphs; Costs, benefits, dollar figures. And indeed, I got something vastly different than most other environmentalism events I’ve attended thus far. I know Clean Your Streams, I organized paper and plastic recycling drives, and I am a bicycle advocate. (We really, really need more bike lanes!)  But much of my experience with sustainability is community/neighborhood or individual-based. This day was going to be different.

I was open, receptive, and taking notes at lightspeed. The whole global scope of wastewater policies was discussed in 6 hours’ time. Big picture thinking. I mean, really Big Picture thinking. Global Thinking. The kind thinking that the United Nations tries to engage us in. It takes major amounts of pixels to get such a picture. And I qu ickly learned that what I had been doing was working just a few pixels; a small segment of the enormity of the tasks ahead. For example, 80% of the global waste water goes raw into the rivers and seas. Or, closer to home, while I am involved in plastic recycling in Philadelphia, our region spends 80,000,000,000 dollars on water treatment, half of it from government grants; a whole different scale indeed.

 For centuries, humanity relied on the capacity of nature to “handle” waste. As the saying goes: there is no waste in nature. The drinking water of Philadelphia once included waste water from Reading.  However, industrial production, population pressure and the sheer scale of dumping waste has forced us to re-think those strategies. As technology and innovation moves forward, so does the way we view and treat our water systems. The GWA symposium covered a range of topics such as water filtration membranes, decentralization of treatment plants, chemical manipulations, and reclamation of minerals (and fuel) from wastewater. We even discussed, in light of the severe water shortages, the possible re-use of waste water for drinking. These aren’t entirely new ideas, but funding restrictions and public reactions regarding the “yuck factor” of reused wastewater have held that progress back. For me, the latter was key. Who can blame someone for not wanting to drink recycled waste water? At what level of sanitation is our water drinkable? And if we have the technology to reuse our wastewater and simultaneously extract useful elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus, how can we make that into broad based, well-funded policies which are and will be necessary to stop depleting our ground water?

Most individuals in the US acknowledge our government’s oversight role in water and waste management, including building and maintaining sufficient infrastructure. Ours is a pretty good model, made possible by the Clean Water Act of 1972, and progress will mostly depend on proper funding through the political process. The situation isn’t the same for developing countries, where most have little to no waste water infrastructure whatsoever. However, in the absence of infrastructure, these countries, as they work on the Sustainable Development Goals, can reap the benefits of new technologies, contingency modeling and the like. Currently much attention goes to Point of Use and Point of Discharge technology, such as cutting edge filtration technologies as the foundation for their “integrated water resource management.” Entrepreneurship, smart funding systems, and limiting the “yuck” factor in wastewater reuse are bringing sustainable water practices everywhere closer to reality. I for one support this all the way, and understanding the how and where of these financial and technological schemes greatly informed how I see the big picture.

What does this all mean? Am I going to stop what I’m doing on an individual level in exchange for larger-scale impact? Of course not. The symposium made it clear that in the end the global picture is composed of many small, individual level actions. I now have a much better understanding about the importance and the role of my plastic recycling activities. Organizations such as the Global Water Alliance, and United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia are a few of the local hubs of knowledge and resources available to our citizens to stay conscientious and involved. We are after all global citizens; the hands we lend in our own community impact on a global scale. The important part is to do, and to do in a collaborative way. Our sustainability is their sustainability. It is Global Sustainability. I will keep that in mind, next time collect plastics from the banks of the Schuylkill.

Alan Beyersdorf lives and works in Philadelphia where he recycles his own paper for printmaking, hums to his plants, and documents his daily plastic usage with the aim of cutting back a little at a time. You can find his writing and other pursuits at alanbeyersdorf.com.