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<International Source Book On Environmentally Sound Technologies
for Wastewater and Stormwater Management>

2.2 Natural purification processes

Before considering technologies for wastewater and stormwater management it is instructive for us to examine natural processes that cycle waste materials. In nature waste materials are produced by living organisms (plants, animals and people). These wastes include faecal materials, leaf litter, food wastes and dead biomass. Yet streams and rivers flowing through a pristine forest, or freshwater lakes in a forest, have generally an excellent water quality. Thus there are natural processes which purify the naturally produced wastes. These wastes are characterised by their organic nature (that is derived from living or once living organisms). They consist of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements which constitute the building blocks of living organisms. These elements are continuously cycled in nature. Three of them (carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles) and the water cycle are relevant to wastewater and stormwater management. Figure 2.3 shows the natural carbon cycle.

Figure 2.3: Carbon cycle

The following transformation processes occur in the carbon cycle. Plants photosynthesise glucose from carbon dioxide gas and water, and in turn more complex organic matter is synthesised. Plants are consumed by plant-eating animals, which in turn are consumed by meat-eating animals. Organic carbon compounds are digested by these animals and re-synthesised into other forms, which are useful for energy, cell growth and cell multiplication. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during the process of respiration. The respiration process releases energy for the organism through oxidising the organic carbon. Plants and animals produce waste materials and will eventually die. Leaf litter, animal wastes and dead organic matter are decomposed by bacteria and other decomposers releasing the carbon as carbon dioxide thus completing the carbon cycle. Oxygen is required in the process of respiration and oxidation of organic carbon, and this is the reason for the oxygen demand of organic wastes. Some organic matter from dead animals and plants is, however, stored in nature, particularly in sediments, and slowly turns into peat or more stable carbon-rich materials.

In the process of decomposition not only is carbon released as carbon dioxide, but other minerals are released. These minerals are involved in other cycles, such as the nitrogen cycle (Figure 2.4) and phosphorus cycle (Figure 2.5).

Ammonia is generally the form of nitrogen released from the decomposition of organic wastes. Provided that oxygen is available the ammonia is oxidised by a group of bacteria (termed nitrifiers) to nitrate. This process is another that exerts oxygen demand on the environment. Nitrate is the form of nitrogen that is normally taken up by plants for protein synthesis. Nitrate may on the other hand, under conditions devoid of oxygen (anaerobic conditions), be converted by a group of bacteria (termed denitrifiers) to nitrogen gas. Denitrification generally takes place in sediments, where anaerobic conditions and availability of organic carbon promote the process.

Nitrogen gas in the atmosphere is very large in quantity, but is inert. Relatively small quantities are converted into forms that can be utilised by plants. These are converted through the activity of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the root-nodules of some plants, nitrogen-fixing blue-green algae or through lightning. Some is contributed by volcanic eruption. The amount of nitrogen cycled in a natural environment is therefore relatively small and is rapidly absorbed by plants.

Figure 2.4: Nitrogen cycle (lager image)

Phosphates are the products of decomposition of organic matter by decomposers and these are also the forms that are taken by plants. Phosphate rock, from which phosphate for fertiliser is mined, is an accumulation of phosphorus from the excretion of the guano birds and that is not utilised by plants at the deposition site.


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