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United Nations Environment Programme
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4.2 Off-site wastewater treatment systems

Off-site treatment is the treatment of wastewater that has been conveyed using a sewerage system (Section 3). Activated sludge treatment is now considered the conventional means of large-scale off-site treatment of sewage, and is described first. Trickling filtration, which was developed before the activated sludge process, is described next. There have traditionally been other more simple, but as effective methods of treating sewage. These include the use of ponds or lagoons, land based treatment (sewage farming), and aquaculture.

Several general principles common to treatment systems will be discussed first. The main aim of treatment is to reduce biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and suspended solids (SS) to acceptable levels. This is achieved by removing solids and aerating the wastewater to satisfy the oxygen demand of the wastewater. The different treatment systems remove solids and provide oxygen in different ways. It should be noted that if the systems are properly designed, constructed, operated and maintained, they should all achieve the required standard of treatment. The latter is generally a reduction of BOD to less than 20 mg/L, and SS to less than 30 mg/L.

Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) may need removal if the wastewater is discharged to water environments sensitive to enrichment by nutrients. Nitrogen is very difficult and costly to remove at low concentrations and the high standards used in many developed countries are difficult meet. The Source Book, published by IWA and IETC, contains details of methods for removing nutrients in the North America and Western Europe Regional Overviews, because nutrients have been found to be a problem in many receiving waters. Nitrogen Heavy metals and other pollutants are not generally a problem unless the sewerage system receives industrial discharges. In this case treatment of industrial wastes prior to discharge to the sewerage system is the solution to this problem.

Removal of SS and BOD produces sludge, and the sludge has to be treated prior to reuse or disposal (Section 5). Anaerobic treatment has recently been suggested for wastewater. The main reason for the use of an anaerobic process is the recovery of energy (in the form of methane) from the wastewater. The upflow anaerobic sludge blanket process is described at the end of this section.

4.2.1 Activated sludge treatment

The term 'activated sludge' refers to sludge in the aeration tank of an activated sludge treatment process. It consists of flocs of bacteria, which consume the biodegradable organic substances in the wastewater. Because of its usefulness in removing organic substances from wastewater, the sludge is kept in the process by separating it from the treated wastewater and re-circulating it. A typical arrangement of an activated sludge process is schematically shown in Figure 16.

Wastewater entering an activated sludge treatment plant is usually passed through a bar screen to remove gross materials such as napkins, rags and other materials that may damage mechanical equipment further down the treatment plant. The bar screen consists of vertical bars separated by a distance of about 1 cm. Screened solids are continually scraped off the bars. The screenings can be landfilled or incinerated.

Sand and similar heavy particles are removed next in a grit chamber. This chamber can be aerated to separate these particles from other suspended solids. The wastewater spends a relatively short period in the grit chamber (in the order of minutes). The sedimented sand and grit is usually landfilled.

The finer solids are removed in a settling or sedimentation tank, where the wastewater spends of the order of an hour to allow the solids to settle or float. The mechanical removal of solids as described above is usually called 'primary treatment', the sedimentation tank as primary sedimentation tank, the overflow from the sedimentation tank as primary-treated wastewater (primary effluent) and the sludge produced as primary sludge.

The primary-treated wastewater is then passed to an aeration chamber. Aeration provides oxygen to the activated sludge and at the same time thoroughly mixes the sludge and the wastewater. Aeration is by either bubbling air through diffusers at the bottom of the aeration tank, or by mechanically agitating the surface of the water.

In the aeration tank, the bacteria in the activated sludge consume the organic substances in the wastewater. The organic substances are utilised by the bacteria for energy, growth and reproduction. The wastewater spends a few hours in the aeration chamber before entering a second sedimentation tank to separate the activated sludge from the treated wastewater. The activated sludge is returned to the aeration tank. There is an increase in the amount of activated sludge because of growth and reproduction of the bacteria. The excess sludge is wasted to maintain a desired amount of sludge in the system. This part of the treatment process is called 'secondary treatment', the sedimentation tank as secondary sedimentation tank, the overflow from the sedimentation tank as secondary-treated wastewater (secondary effluent) and the excess activated sludge as secondary sludge.

Depending on the flow rate of wastewater, several parallel trains of primary and secondary stages can be employed. There are several ways to operate an activated sludge process. In a 'high rate' process a relatively high volume of wastewater is treated per unit volume of activated sludge. The high amount of organic waste consumed by the activated sludge produces a high amount of excess sludge. In an 'extended aeration' mode of operation the opposite condition takes place. A relatively low amount of organic waste is treated per unit volume of sludge with little excess sludge to be removed. Removal of BOD is higher in the extended aeration mode compared to the high rate mode, but more wastewater can be treated with the latter mode.

An activated sludge treatment plant is a highly mechanised plant, and is suited to automated operation. The capital cost for building such a plant is relatively high. The energy requirement, particularly for providing air to the aeration tank, is also relatively high. There is a need for regular maintenance of the mechanical equipment, which requires skilled technical personnel and suitable spare parts. The operation and maintenance costs of an activated sludge treatment plant are therefore relatively high.

An activated sludge treatment process can be operated in batches rather than continuously. One tank is allowed to fill with wastewater. It is then aerated to satisfy the oxygen demand of the wastewater, following which the activated sludge is allowed to settle. The treated wastewater is then decanted, and the tank is filled with a new batch of wastewater. At least two tanks are needed for the batch mode of operation, constituting what is called a ‘sequential batch reactor (SBR)’. SBRs are suited to smaller flows, because the size of each tank is determined by the volume of wastewater produced during the treatment period in the other tank.

4.2.2 Trickling filtration

A trickling filter is a bed of solid media for bacteria to attach on its surfaces. Wastewater is irrigated on the solid media (Figure 17). It is also called a biological filter to emphasise that the filtration process is not mechanical straining of solids, but removal of organic substances by use of bacterial action.

The solid media can be stones, waste coal, gravel or specially manufactured plastic media. The latter can be corrugated plastic sheets or hollow plastic cylinders, with the main aim being to provide a large surface area for bacteria to attach to, while at the same time allowing free movement of air. Typically the solid media is placed in a tank on a support with openings to allow air to move up by natural convection and for treated wastewater to be collected in the under-drain.

Wastewater has to undergo primary treatment (See Activated Sludge Treatment above, 4.2.1) before trickling filtration, otherwise solids will block the filter. As wastewater trickles over the surfaces of the solid media organic substances are trapped in the layer of bacterial slime. The bacteria consume the organic substances in the same manner as in the activated sludge process, while air diffuses into the slime layer from the air spaces in the bed of the trickling filter. Growth and reproduction of the bacteria take place and result in an increase of thickness of the slime layer, particularly at the top of the biological filter. Periodically bacterial slime sloughs off the surfaces of the filter media and leaves with the treated wastewater.

Solids derived from the sloughing off of bacterial slime are separated from the treated wastewater in a sedimentation tank. Sludge from this sedimentation tank is not returned to the trickling filter, but treated prior to reuse or disposal (Section 6). Treated wastewater can however be returned to the trickling filter, if this will assist with either treating the wastewater further (second pass) or more generally for a more uniform distribution of water over the trickling filter bed. The trickling filter and associated sedimentation tank is also termed 'secondary treatment'.

The energy requirement for operating a trickling filter is less than for an activated sludge process, because oxygen supply to the bacteria is provided by natural diffusion of air. The area requirement of a biological filter is, however, larger than for an activated sludge process to achieve the same quality of treated wastewater.

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