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Engineers to face battle to get consumers to use ‘grey’ water

Public reluctant to recycle water amid perception that the UK is not really prone to shortages.

Better public understanding of the value of recycling water is vital to efforts to secure supplies in the future, delegates said at the first of a series of water-focused events organised by the engineering community.

Engineering the Future of Water, organised by the Engineering the Future alliance in which ICE plays a leading role, will explore key issues facing the water sector with three dedicated events.
Last week’s panel discussion with leading experts in the sector focused on recycled water and its uptake in the UK.

Barrier to uptake

Using commercially available water recycling technology could help prevent future shortages. But public perception that “grey” water - which is unsuitable for drinking but good for washing clothes in and for watering plants - is a barrier to widespread uptake.

Ben Courtis of GE Water said manufacturers and buyers believed their brands’ image would be compromised if they used lower grade water.

This is despite the fact that installing recycling technology could cut their use of expensive drinking-quality water by more than 50%.

Professor Paul Jeffrey of Cranfield University agreed, saying that there was a deep rooted reluctance to use recycled water among UK consumers.

Yuk factor

“If you look at the amount of waste water we reuse, it’s almost negligible. If water reuse is to make a more significant contribution, we’ve got a lot of work to do and a key component of that work is making sure that public attitudes to recycling are appropriately understood. We know there’s an instinctive resistance to recycling - often called the ‘yuk factor’. But we also know that the source, the use and the tightness of the reuse cycle are important determinants of public attitudes.”

The six panelists at the event said one of the biggest problems is the need to change public perception that water in the UK is abundant. This is mistakenly based on the assumption that UK rainfall levels are relatively high.

“Only when the public turns on the taps and nothing comes out will they be convinced that reusing and recycling water will be the way forward”

Stephen Kay, Cambridge Water

But earlier this year some parts of the country were declared drought areas.

National Farmers Union policy advisor Jenny Bashford warned that there could be acute water shortages next year if there was a fourth consecutive dry winter.

Burning deck moment

Cambridge Water managing director Stephen Kay said the British public needed a “burning deck” to change attitudes and encourage action at industrial and government level.

“Only when the public turns on their taps and nothing comes out will they be convinced that reusing and recycling water would be the way forward - the reason why countries such as Australia and Israel are so advanced in their reuse schemes.”

Halcrow global director of urban water and ICE water expert panel chairman Michael Norton, warned that the situation in the UK was becoming increasingly serious.

Water security challenge

“What we haven’t yet perceived in this country is that we have a ‘burning platform’ or a water security challenge.

When we turn on the tap or flush the toilet it’s easy - we don’t appear to have any problem. But that is despite the undeniable impacts of climate change and population growth, and that 75% of our water footprint is in other countries, some of which are in water stress”.

“Our nation does need to take a radical and refreshed view of its total water needs across drinking, agriculture, industry against its current total renewable water resources and I think that water recycling is going to be one of the ways in which we resolve that.”

The second event in the series is on 25 October. It will look at whether water transfer networks are a solution to water security. The final event on 22 November will look at behaviour change and demand management.

  • To attend future events contact Ed Holmes at

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