The answer to water scarcity – Extract it, recycle, and reuse it!


In ULTIMATE we demonstrate at 9 large scale demonstration sites across Europe a water smart industrial symbiosis. This specific form of circular economy is looking at symbioses between industries and the water sector, aiming at win-win solutions to address the water challenges. ESCI talked with our coordinator Dr Gerard van den Berg about the uniqueness of ULTIMATE and why such projects are needed.


ESCI: What makes Ultimate such a unique project?

Gerard van den Berg: I think the project’s uniqueness is that it addresses one of the central policies in Europe to achieve a circular economy towards 2050. The outcomes of Ultimate will contribute to achieving the middle and long-term goals for Europe, mainly since the topics we are working on and the cases we are developing are driven by existing initiatives. They may act as good practice examples for the European water sector.

What do you expect from the project?

With Ultimate we want to show to the European society, but also to policymakers in Europe, that it is possible to develop circular systems on various scales and between different sectors. Currently, most of the circular initiatives focus on one specific sector or one specific industry; so individual organisations are interested in reusing wastewater in their own production schemes.

It is more challenging to combine waste streams, either water, materials, or energy from one sector to another sector, so wastewater from an industry is used in a nearby other industry. The locations we have chosen to demonstrate the potential for overarching sectors and industries will create an active collaboration, what we call an ‘industrial symbiosis.’ If we successfully achieve these goals in our project, it would be an excellent step in developing similar projects throughout Europe.

What would you say are the main innovations in Ultimate?

We conceive that for different situations, you will need different technologies. We expect many technological innovations for the water treatment. Both in the sense of new technologies being applied and technologies being applied in a different setting. Successful industrial symbiosis requires a different governance approach.

I also expect many innovations on the business development side. We see that in certain cases already new types of businesses have been implemented, for example, the combined management of water and energy for a certain industrial site with different industries, which is different than the original approach of a water company and an energy company providing water and energy.

This approach is exciting to explore further. We see in many countries that the development of the water and energy-consuming industries aim to be less dependent on external utilities providing water and energy. The most obvious one is that many companies are using solar panels to produce energy for their processes. Another example is the Netherlands’ greenhouses: they collect their own rainwater and treat it to a quality they need to grow their crops. By combining greenhouses with industries, new approaches, and new types of businesses are developed to ensure that the water and energy reaches the parties involved. Those businesses can be public and private, can be a partnership, public-private partnerships, or another model.

A good example is to see the involvement of the local governments and the regional governments in these developments.

‘’The term wastewater… is a barrier for a lot of initiatives.’’

Why do we need such projects as Ultimate?

I would say that water is becoming more and more a scarce product worldwide. We should feel responsible for taking care of our resources as much as we can.

For example, in the Netherlands we use groundwater for drinking water that may be thousands of years old. We should be aware we cannot limitlessly make use of our natural resources.

In many regions in Europe, we see the effects of droughts, which have severe consequences for the crops and nature. We have seen the direct impact from the way we deal with our water. We must be aware that finding other ways to produce and use water is critical. Our water resources will not last forever. It may last for 20 years, but it will not last for our grandchildren or their grandchildren. We should feel responsible.

Definitely. So, what can we do? Would you like to give three examples of what we can do better?

I think it is very important to increase social acceptance by communicating. It is essential for every decision we make that people know why drought is a potential problem. This understanding of the natural system around us is needed to increase the acceptance of political decisions for the future.

The second step is to emphasise that there is a need for collaborative actions to solve the problems. It is not only the agriculture, or not only the drinking water companies, and not only the industry who should solve it. I believe that we can all already make a big change with simple solutions and simple techniques. But if we are working towards longer term solutions, we must stimulate the cooperation between the different actors.

A third step would be the support of innovations. Innovations should support and contribute to a more circular way of thinking instead of the linear concepts we have developed in the past. I believe there is a strong need to support innovations not only on the research side but also making this link from research to practice.

So why do we need water recycling?

I would not only talk about water recycling. I think that recycling is part of the answer. It is also part of the circular economy, and we should look at it from the perspective of water, energy, and materials.

We have used the term wastewater for decades now because it implies that it is a waste product and has no value. This wording is also a barrier for a lot of initiatives. For example, if you ask people if they would be willing to drink treated wastewater from an urban wastewater treatment plant, many people will say “No”. It is a waste product, and they can treat it, but they do not trust it. At the same time, many of these people are already drinking treated wastewater because many of our rivers are rain-dominated rivers. A considerable period of the year when the rainfall is low, and the volume of water in the rivers is decreasing, the effluent from the wastewater treatment plants can be up to 60-80 percent of the water in the river. This water is also a source for drinking water. In fact, we are already drinking water which is produced from a source that contains a large percentage of wastewater.


Ultimate project coordinator Gerard van den Berg from KWR Water Research Institute

What would you say has changed during the last 10 or 20 years in water usage?

People have become more aware of water quality. Social media, and the ability to measure contaminants in water are the main reasons. The methodology is to measure pollutants in very low concentrations in water, even in much lower concentrations of what could affect human health.

Much of this information is made available through media and in more recent years, even via social media. I see that there is also more discussion about safe drinking water and more questions about it, although there is still a lot of trust. But I see that people are more concerned about how we are taking care of our natural environment. We will keep on using and extracting water from our environment. That may lead to shortages of water, poor water quality, and a shift in people’s concern. The droughts we have seen over the last couple of years have opened the eyes for many people who have seen the river levels dropping and quality effects as algae blooms. People can actually see the effects of climate change, and I think that this helps in the acceptance of alternatives.

What do we need to change from your point of view in terms of water usage?

In general, I would say that water use, either for individuals or for companies, is critical given the quantity of water used. They should also consider that water itself is a valuable product. Water is something that comes from nature, and we should take care of it. We are all responsible for that as individuals and companies.

There are still parts of Europe where part of the population does not have access to clean water. I think this is a big challenge ahead of us. A priority is that we do have enough water. But we may need to look for alternative ways to produce this water. We must make this step from a linear approach where we extract water, use it, and then throw it away to a system where we extract it, use it, recycle, and reuse it.

For example, if you are going to reuse water to produce food, there are strict limits for pathogens in the water. To rephrase your question before, it would be more in the direction: Do we have enough water of suitable quality in the future?

Your example on the food company brings me to my next question: What is a water-smart industrial symbiosis?

Ultimate will give examples of how water-smart industrial symbiosis will work in practice. The project will show that a water-smart industrial symbiosis can be achieved by applying certain approaches, both technical and social governance. They will demonstrate that industries and authorities, can stimulate the development and implementation of similar approaches. That is what I expect from Ultimate. At the same time, Ultimate and its results can support policymakers in Europe also on a national level, in developing policy guidelines for stimulating circular solutions based on actual experiences from Ultimate.

In ULTIMATE we have finalised the first project year. The lessons we are going to learn from the demo sites in ULTIMATE will lead to new developments and implementations, with innovations in technology, business development and governance models.


Find our article also under the following links:

Amsterdam International Water Web

Gerard van den Berg: ‘’The term wastewater is a barrier for a lot of initiatives’’

Alpha Galileo