Addressing the next global challenge: water pollution and wastewater treatment

Water is essential for life; it’s fundamental to our industry, economy and environment. It covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, and yet 25% of the world’s population still does not have access to safe drinking water.

Far from being a 20th-century issue, poor water quality remains a pervasive problem globally. Pollutants from industrial processes and urban waste are worryingly prevalent in our oceans, freshwater and groundwater reserves. Water pollution causes 1.8 million deaths each year and yields an additional critical burden of chronic diseases. While much of the Global North has made improvements to water quality through legislative action and research innovations, water quality is continuing to deteriorate in much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The use of water is embedded in industrial processes, across chemicals and materials manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, engineering, utilities, consumer goods, and agriculture. There are practically no sectors that do not rely on water in their value chain. So now we’re putting the focus on how the research ecosystem can respond to the global challenge of water pollution and wastewater treatment.

Why are we running a Global Challenge campaign on water pollution?

In 2021, we ran a survey asking individuals in our industry network what they and their companies perceive as the biggest global challenges we face as a society. Overwhelmingly, the majority of respondents stated that climate change and sustainability are the biggest challenges we need to address. Our annual survey in 2022 confirmed these were still the top priorities for industry.

During our last Global Challenge campaign, we chose to focus on sustainable polymers and alternative materials. Through this, we were able to explore in-depth technical challenges across the whole plastics life cycle. 

However, the issue of plastic waste is a huge challenge that repeatedly came up in those conversations around plastic. The ramifications on the environment, especially oceans and waterways, we felt was an issue with its own unique challenges that we believe IN-PART and the academia-industry community can help address.

And so we now turn our attention to global water pollution and wastewater treatment, with the aim of surfacing the next generation of academic research addressing the issue and delivering these to R&D teams in companies working on aligned solutions.

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Image credit: Thomas Millot / Unsplash

What’s the scale of the water pollution and wastewater treatment challenge?

In the past, offloading waste in waterways and oceans wasn’t prohibited or thoroughly monitored, and its effects on human health, wildlife, and the environment were largely unknown or ignored. The availability of safe and sufficient water supplies is inextricably linked to how wastewater is managed, making good wastewater management an essential part of any manufacturing process. 

However, according to UNESCO, over 80% of the world’s wastewater – and over 95% in some developing countries – is released into the environment without treatment. 

Many legacy pollutants have yet to be removed from the environment because of insufficient treatment, or because certain pollutants are so persistent that conventional treatment methods cannot effectively remove them from the environment. There is also concern about the impact of emerging pollutants, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in water sources across the globe, with their impacts on human health and wildlife well documented by scientists. But in some cases, the full impacts of these pollutants on ecosystems are not yet fully understood. 

As with all environmental issues, it is impossible to ignore the impacts of climate change. In fact, according to the United Nations, water is the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change. Climate change is disrupting the water cycle, and water scarcity exacerbated by droughts is becoming a critical issue for populations globally. Technical solutions such as desalination, and cheaper, more accessible and less energy-intensive water purification methods can help mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

The scale of this challenge requires innovative technical solutions that can provide clean, safe water for all – the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 – and develop a more circular and sustainable economy that benefits from good wastewater management.

How are we going to try and help solve the problem? 

As with previous Global Challenge campaigns, our aim is to mobilise the academia-industry ecosystem to address a global challenge aligned to sustainable development goals with a clear demand from industry for solutions. We do this by uncovering innovative research from academics in universities and research institutes around the world, to match and partner with industry R&D teams that have aligned interests. By taking this approach, we’re able to help transform new research into real-world solutions. 

With all the projects that we receive from academia in response to the campaign, we will proactively disseminate them through our matchmaking platforms to external innovation and R&D teams across our global network of 6,000+ companies. This is with aim of initiating new conversations that lead to the development of effective water monitoring and treatment solutions.

What are the main technical challenges, and why do we need to mobilise innovation in this area?  

The scope of the technologies we’re seeking will be guided by our Global Challenge industry campaign partners, De Nora, Hach, Puraffinity, and Evoqua Water Technologies, who are all water industry leaders and engaged members of the IN-PART community. They’ll be sharing their R&D priorities and requirements from academia through interest documents and online industry partnering opportunity events.

Within the R&D ecosystem, we need to ensure that industry is not having an adverse effect on the environment. Addressing water pollution at its source can avoid costly and energy-intensive clean-up operations. During this campaign, we will be seeking technologies that remove contaminants at source, as well as at point-of-use.

The monitoring of water quality across the world is a great challenge for scientists. Water quality data are not collected routinely in a majority of countries. This means that over 3 billion people are at risk because the health of their freshwater ecosystems is unknown. During this campaign, we are also seeking methods for the detection and monitoring of pollutants (including heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, arsenic, pathogens, and many more) in water systems.

Over the last half-century, research and innovation has played a vital role in cleaning up our water systems, using new or improved monitoring and treatment technologies, and many water bodies in the Global North have seen improved water quality since the 20th century (for example, the Rhine). Now the challenge for academia and industry is to tackle water pollution globally through the development and deployment of research innovations.

The campaign is scheduled to launch on the 3rd of May 2022.

If you’re registered to any of our platforms, you’ll receive more information by email.

And if you’d like to be contacted directly about submitting your research or engaging with the opportunities received, send our team a quick message and we’ll make sure you’re kept in the loop.

To keep updated with all of our work driving impact from research, can follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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Image credit: Brian Yursits / Unsplash


Written by Anabel Bennett. Edited by Alex Stockham.

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed – IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2022: ‘Addressing the next Global Challenge: water pollution and wastewater treatment.’


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