One day in November 2014, Bill Gates stood in front of a large machine, waited for a glass of clear water to flow from the tap, then without hesitation raised his glass and took a sip a sip as applause and whistles rang out around him.
Five minutes before he drank it, the water was still sewer sludge containing human excrement, and the water vapour had not yet separated from the solid waste. The machine behind him has completed the process and will help more developing countries that do not have access to clean water.
One of the world's most advanced economies, Singapore, also a place where fresh water is in short supply, has hit on the idea of sewage.
In April this year, a 'sewage beer' called NEWBrew hit the shelves in Singapore, a collaboration between Singapore's National Water Board (PUB) and local craft brewery Brewerkz.
Will it go unnoticed?
Fittingly, the first batch of NEWBrew at Brewerkz restaurants is currently sold out, and supermarkets are expected to run out of stock by the end of July.
A beer made from recycled toilet water that's selling out
I can't drink it if it's made from toilet water. I don't mind if it's in the fridge. I mean, it tastes like beer, and I like beer.
Several locals who tasted NEWBrew thought that it tasted refreshing, calming and suitable for Singapore's tropical climate. They didn't know the difference in the water it was made with until they drank it down, but after the answer was revealed, they didn't mind having another sip.
▲ Image from: vimeo@Dervish
This is probably because the water that NEWBrew uses is a household name in Singapore - NEWater (New Life Water).
Fresh Water, a PUB brand specializing in recycled, drinkable water, was first introduced to the market in 2003.
The Prime Minister at that time also drank
Wastewater treatment plants are responsible for collecting municipal sewage and separating out the impurities that can be easily removed. About 60% of the water is discharged into the sea, and the rest is sent to the nascent water plant.
▲ Image from: bloomberg
In order to make the effluent drinkable, the treatment process at the NWS has three main steps.
First, microfiltration or ultrafiltration, which uses membranes to filter tiny particles and bacteria; second, reverse osmosis, where the semi-permeable membranes used have very small pores, allowing only water molecules to pass through, thus removing contaminants such as viruses, at which point the water is ready for ingestion; and third, ultraviolet disinfection, which ensures that all organisms are inactivated and the water is pure.
▲ Image from: PUB
Although nascent water is drinkable, it is mainly put to non-drinking uses such as industrial production. Users such as wafer fabricators have even stricter requirements for water quality than drinking water, and the purity of nascent water is high enough to help them save a lot of money.
The remaining few nascent waters are added to the reservoir during the dry season, mixed with the raw water from the tap, and further processed by the waterworks before flowing through the taps to thousands of homes as part of the drinking water.
▲ Photo from: Xinhua News Agency
Why does Singapore want to reuse its sewage?
Because of the limited land area for rainfall collection and storage, and the lack of natural aquifers and lakes, Singapore's freshwater resources are scarce, and it has been a 'major concern' for the Singapore government to ensure long-term water security.
At present, Singapore relies on four main sources of water, or the 'four national taps', of which New Life Water is one and the other three are local catchment water, imported water and desalinated water.
In 2019, nascent water met 40% of Singapore's water demand, and PUB plans to increase this to 50% by 2060.
While the NEWBrew looks promising, Brewerkz wants to wait and see before deciding whether to go forward with production.
After all, not everyone can take sewage beer.
In a poll sponsored by the New Zealand Sewerage Corporation, NEWBrew has no advantage. Given the choice, most people would naturally prefer a more common beer.
This is not what the PUB would like to see.The PUB, as a water department, is also responsible for outreach to the public.
The name NEWBrew has a different meaning, as it deliberately avoids words with negative connotations such as "waste water" or "sewage", and this NEWBrew is made with NEWBrew in the same vein.
The New Life Water Factory also has a visitor center for all ages, where visitors can see firsthand how the steps are performed and participate in fun and educational activities.
Fresh Water or NEWBrew, PUB wants to convince the public that - 'once water is treated, it's just water'.
Sewage beer, not uncommon
A more common way to save water in the past was to treat wastewater as non-potable water, such as for irrigation.
But for nearly a decade, the world's freshwater supplies have been under increasing pressure. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 2.7 billion people worldwide suffer from water shortages for at least one month of the year.
The idea of turning sewage into drinking water is increasingly being put into reality.
▲ Image from: CNET
In addition to Singapore, sewage beer is also found in the United States, Canada, and Sweden, and is generally created by breweries, water purification technology companies, and city wastewater departments working together, but it's enough to be done by individuals alone.
In 2015, American wastewater engineer Theera Ratarasarn homebrewing beer at home, used water from the treated effluent of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wastewater treatment plant. This water is not dirty, but not clean enough to be ingestible.
Homebrewing a beer doesn't sound too difficult: boil the wort, add the hops, chill, add yeast, and ferment.
Because the water used is from a sewage treatment plant, six more steps are added - chlorination, dechlorination, filtration, distillation, testing and adding nutrients. The final product, scored a 7 out of 10 in a taste test.
Theera Ratarasarn wants to change the prejudice against the quality of the factory's effluent in his own way, but in order not to attract associations and to completely 'draw the line' with sewage, he makes a lighter-coloured wheat beer rather than a darker-coloured porter or stout.
In 2019, water purification technology company Xylem and a wastewater treatment facility in Berlin have partnered to launch the beer 'Reuse Brew'.
CNET reporter Andrew Gebhart was "fortunate" to see the complete treatment of sewage, the first stage of which made him feel like he was in "the room where a million people just went to the bathroom.
Wastewater treatment facilities can achieve 97% cleanliness and produce enough water to be introduced into some groundwater sources or used for agriculture.
To achieve a potable grade, the remaining 3% is treated by Xylem, which includes steps such as creating ozone to break down chemical waste into molecules, UV light to kill chemicals, and using carbon filters to eliminate 99.999% of the contaminants.
▲ Image from: CNET
Victor Hugo once compared the city's sewers to the conscience of the city, but they may also contain the city's resources.
As Joe Vesey, who was Xylem's chief marketing officer, put it.
Most cities are overly dependent on a single source of water, and many face water supply shortages, either with volume or pollution problems. Municipalities can pay to import clean water or seawater, but both are much more expensive than simply cleaning wastewater, which is a naturally occurring supply for any city.
Similarly, in 2018, a Swedish Stockholm-based brewery collaborated with the Swedish Institute of Environmental Sciences (IVL) to develop a beer, 'PU:REST', using water from the Henriksdal wastewater treatment plant.IVL said at the time : The
"It's time for humans to think not about finding safe water, but about creating safe water, and we have recycled water technology that produces purified wastewater that is at least as good and safe as ordinary tap water."
Seeing this, you might want to ask why the form of 'sewage' delivered to the mouth is often beer?
Beer is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world. Before the West knew what boiling water could do, an old adage circulated: "Water can kill you, but beer won't."
Science writer Steven Berlin Johnson, in The Map of Death: How the London Plague is Reshaping the City and the World Today, mentions that
The search for uncontaminated drinking water is as old as civilization itself. Once there were large-scale human settlements, waterborne diseases such as dysentery became a key demographic bottleneck. For most of human history, the solution to this chronic public health problem has not been to purify the water supply, but to drink.
This phenomenon of drinking wine as water is the sum of experience under the unknown.
A common argument is not that wine is more hygienic than water, but that yeast can only proliferate and complete fermentation when the water is relatively clean, and that other microorganisms cannot survive in an environment where yeast is predominant. A wine with a lot of trash bacteria and a failed brew is easily identifiable as off-flavored, compared to the difficulty one has in knowing if raw water is safe.
▲ Image from: chinadaily
At least, whether or not beer is safer, it has a historical and psychological advantage. Drinking 'sewage beer' seems a bit more acceptable than drinking straight purified waste water.
Of course, you can also choose to drink neither.
Not just purify the sewage, but use every drop of water
In Singapore, where water is a matter of life and death, PUB acts as the "all-important" gatekeeper to ensure that Singapore has a sustainable and efficient water supply.
Newborn water is not the only thing Singapore is doing in this process.
Remember the 'four taps' system in Singapore? It was actually designed to increase the water supply from the other three 'taps', thus reducing dependence on imported water.
By the mid-21st century, it is expected that 80 per cent of Singapore's water demand will be met by fresh water and desalination, with the rest being covered by local catchments.
In addition, since 2006, PUB has promoted the "Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters" (ABC Waters) program for more than a decade, developing retention ponds and integrating drainage ditches, canals, and reservoirs with their surroundings, both to improve the condition of streams, rivers, and lakes and to enhance the quality of life for residents.
"While 'open source' is vital, 'cutting costs' is also relevant to everyone.
On the one hand, PUB has a number of mandatory water saving programmes, the key word being 'efficiency'.
From January 2015, large non-domestic water users consuming 60,000 cubic metres or more per year will be required to install private meters and submit an annual Water Efficiency Management Plan to the PUB, from which the PUB will understand how each sector uses water and develop more targeted conservation measures.
In April 2017, PUB launched the "Water Efficiency Labeling Program", where faucets, washing machines, dishwashers, urinal flush valves, etc. must be labeled with a water efficiency label, with more check marks representing more water savings, and those that don't meet the standard simply eliminated. After that, sales of water-efficient washing machines skyrocketed.
At the same time, PUB limits the maximum flow rate of faucets, flush valves, etc. to ensure that every drop of water is used on a knife edge.
On the other hand, PUB also has a number of encouraging actions to leverage individual or collective strengths.
PUB's official mascot, Water Wally, launched in August 2005, looks like a moody blue water drop and often conveys knowledge about water conservation in lively and entertaining ways, such as teaching the entire population to do the "shower dance". Primary school children who participate in it are also given a timer and an activity booklet.
It's worth noting that the National University of Singapore and PUB conducted a study in 2016 where study subjects could see water usage in real time from a smart shower device and receive ratings on different levels, making showering feel like a fight to upgrade.
At the end of the study, each person used 5 litres less water per day, saving about 20%, which could potentially help a household save about 3% on its monthly water bill.
Since 2007, the Watermark Awards have been presented annually to recognise outstanding contributions by individuals or organisations to water sustainability in Singapore.
One of the winners, Qifa Primary School, has achieved water management beyond school boundaries by equipping automatic shut-off delay taps, replacing liquid soap with foam soap, regularly monitoring water consumption for sudden spikes, and calling on the whole school to be the first to report leaks and water wastage.
Water management experts Asit K. Biswas has stated.
The Earth's water resources are sufficient; the question is how effectively national water agencies manage them. Singapore's annual water loss is only 5 per cent, one of the lowest in the world.
Singapore, a country that had to ration its water in the 1960s, is now a leader in water management.
PUB plans to reduce water consumption from [141 litres per person per day in 2018 to 130 litres per day] by 2030 (https://www.pub.gov.sg/savewater). Their message to the public is, as always.
"Every drop counts, every contribution counts. No matter how big or small, let's work together."