Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Major Professor

Qiong Zhang, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

James R. Mihelcic, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Norma Alcantar, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Sarina Ergas, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Rebecca Zarger, Ph.D.


Developing World, Economies of Scale, Energy Recovery, Life Cycle Assessment, Water-energy-nutrient nexus, Water Reuse


There is an urgent need for wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) to adapt to a rise in water and energy demands, prolonged periods of drought, climate variability, and resource scarcity. As population increases, minimizing the carbon and energy footprints of wastewater treatment, while properly managing nutrients is crucial to improving the sustainability WWTPs. Integrated resource recovery can mitigate the environmental impact of wastewater treatment systems; however, the mitigation potential depends on various factors such as treatment technology, resource recovery strategy, and system size.

Amidst these challenges, this research seeks to investigate the environmental sustainability of wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) integrating resource recovery (e.g., water reuse, energy recovery and nutrient recycling) in different contexts (developing versus developed world) and at different scales (household, community, and city). The over-arching hypothesis guiding this research is that: Context and scale impact the environmental sustainability of WWTPs integrated with resource recovery. Three major research tasks were designed to contribute to a greater understanding of the environmental sustainability of resource recovery integrated with wastewater treatment systems. They include a framework development task (Chapter 2), scale assessment task (Chapter 3), and context assessment task (Chapter 4).

The framework development task includes a critical review of literature and models used to design a framework to assess the environmental sustainability of wastewater treatment and integrated resource recovery strategies. Most studies used life cycle assessment (LCA) to assess these systems. LCA is a quantitative tool, which estimates the environmental impact of a system over its lifetime. Based on this review, a comprehensive system boundary was selected to assess the life cycle impacts of collection, treatment, and distribution over the construction and operation and maintenance life stages. Additionally, resource recovery offsets associated with water reuse, energy recovery, and nutrient recycling are considered. The framework’s life cycle inventory includes material production and delivery, equipment operation, energy production, sludge disposal, direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and nutrients discharged to the environment. Process-based LCA is used to evaluate major environmental impact categories, including global impacts (e.g., carbon footprint, embodied energy) and local impacts (e.g., eutrophication potential). This is followed by an interpretation of results using sensitivity or uncertainty analysis.

The scale assessment task investigates how scale impacts the environmental sustainability of three wastewater treatment systems integrated with resource recovery in a U.S. context. Household, community, and city scale systems using mechanized technologies applicable to a developed world setting were investigated. The household system was found to have the highest environmental impacts due high electricity usage for treatment and distribution, methane emissions from the septic tank, and high nutrient discharges. Consequently, the life cycle impacts of passive nutrient reduction systems with low energy usage at the household level merit further investigation. The community scale system highlights trade-offs between global impacts (e.g., embodied energy and carbon footprint) and local impacts (e.g., eutrophication potential) where low nutrient pollution can be achieved at the cost of a high embodied energy and carbon footprint. The city scale system had the lowest global impacts due to economies of scale and the benefits of integrating all three forms of resource recovery: Energy recovery, water reuse, and nutrient recycling. Integrating these three strategies at the city scale led to a 49% energy offset, which mitigates the carbon footprint associated with water reuse.

The context assessment task investigates how context impacts the environmental sustainability of selected community scale systems in both Bolivia and the United States. In this task, rural developing world and urban developed world wastewater management solutions with resource recovery strategies are compared. Less mechanized treatment technologies used in rural Bolivia were found to have a lower carbon footprint and embodied energy than highly mechanized technologies used in urban United States. However, the U.S. community system had a lower eutrophication potential than the Bolivia systems, highlighting trade-offs between global and local impacts. Furthermore, collection and direct methane emissions had more important energy and carbon implications in Bolivia, whereas treatment electricity was dominant for the U.S. community system. Water reuse offsets of embodied energy and carbon footprint were higher for the U.S community system, because high quality potable water is replaced instead of river water. In contrast, water reuse offsets of eutrophication potential were high for the Bolivia systems, highlighting the importance of matching treatment level to end-use application. One of the Bolivia systems benefits from the integration of water, energy, and nutrient recovery leading to beneficial offsets of both global and local impacts. This research can potentially lead to transformative thinking on the appropriate scale of WWTPs with integrated resource recovery, while highlighting that context lead to changes in the dominant contributors to environmental impact, appropriate technologies, and mitigation strategies.