The development of modern wastewater systems has been intent on only one objective: ensuring that the user doesn’t have to think about wastewater. It is an issue we collectively don’t want to consider and we certainly haven’t wanted to be directly involved in any part of our own wastewater treatment.
Wastewater issues are a critical part of creating a sustainable building, and any home built to the status quo in this regard is contributing to environmental issues, including water resource depletion; surface, groundwater and soil contamination; and high costs for municipalities and homeowners. These impacts affect us in more tangible ways than those involving material extraction and processing, many of which happen outside our bioregion, as they impact our immediate environment. Our watersheds are contaminated, unfit for drinking and often even swimming because of the mismanagement of our wastewater. Drinking water sources, crops and soils can similarly be rendered toxic due to wastewater disposal. Wastewater treatment typically represents 15–35 percent of the overall budget of municipal governments, and many municipalities are facing issues with aging sewer infrastructure that will require even larger capital expenditure.
The very concept of “waste” water is at the root of this issue. The majority of what goes down our drains need not be considered waste, and if there are things going down the drain that require intensive processes to separate from the water and safely reuse, they shouldn’t be going down the drain in the first place. Certainly the water itself should not be considered waste; it is one of our most valuable resources.
The regulatory framework for dealing with wastewater is the most restrictive and prescriptive aspect of most codes and many homeowners are dissuaded from attempting to employ more sustainable strategies in the face of government resistance. The impetus for these regulations is understandable: a desire to minimize the harm caused by improper wastewater disposal and/or inadequate treatment. Unfortunately, many of the acceptable solutions in current codes reinforce practices that are responsible for much of this harm, and discourage the use of alternative solutions that attempt to address these issues.
There are signs of positive change in this area. Rainwater catchment, grey water recycling and composting toilets are beginning to find acceptance in some codes, and the majority of codes will likely follow in the next decade or two.
Homeowners wishing to pursue sustainable wastewater strategies should familiarize themselves with local regulations and, if proposing an alternative solution, be prepared to absorb extra time and possibly extra cost in the planning and construction process.
What follows is an overview of available options when it comes to wastewater systems. All are feasible, but not all are prescribed by building codes. They may be combined in different ways to meet specific needs, according to need, climate, personal preference and local regulations.