DPI Queenscliffe Centre Marine Freshwater Resource Institute MAFRI. Credit: John Gollings Photography; DPI Queenscliffe Centre Marine Freshwater Resource Institute MAFRI. Credit: John Gollings Photography;

Flowing in virtuous circles: how the circular economy could transform our water utilities

In a rapidly urbanising world, sustainable water infrastructure is becoming a central challenge. New and growing cities either require new water infrastructure or to radically improve the productivity of their existing assets. Pressure on water supplies is a growing issue and traditional approaches to its management have often been inefficient – for example, the UK can reduce its freshwater use by up to 40% by using rainwater and greywater for non-potable uses at home.

Water is essential to businesses

Water is used to make every product on Earth. Therefore all businesses and business sectors depend on it in some way.

One way of meeting the sector’s priorities would be to rethink how our water cycle operates, applying ‘circular economy’ principles across the productive process. The circular economy aims to recast the way we produce and consume the world around us, keeping materials at their highest value for longer, finding ways to conserve energy and re-use resources. It’s circular because ideally this results in a productive system where almost nothing is wasted. It’s economic because it’s aligned to smart commercial objectives.

At many stages in the water cycle, from abstraction to treatment, distribution to discharge, a circular approach reveals opportunities for all stakeholders, including water utility companies in particular, to conserve water, capture and re-use energy, extract and reuse valuable materials and by-products, and, crucially, improve commercial operations. 

Companies that want to remain profitable in a world with increasingly scarce resources need to adapt their business models and make far greater use and re-use of materials. ”

Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Global Water Leader

Rethinking our most precious resource

Switching from our existing, largely unsustainable, linear mindset of ‘take, make, use, dispose’ to a circular paradigm requires rethinking many aspects of production. The systemic nature of the circular economy requires both the ecosystem of water management and its individual components to change.

However, the good news is that many of the ideas and technologies required already exist, they’re just not currently being deployed on a widespread and in a joined-up way to achieve that goal. 

Let’s examine three key areas of water utility operations where innovative use of technology and circular thinking could be applied: 

Going circular: innovating across the water cycle

From pipes to power


Drinking water moves through pipe networks using pressure reducing valves (PRVs), a process that creates energy. New in-pipe hydrokinetic systems use micro-turbines to convert this energy into electricity that can be fed back into the grid. This means lower costs and greener operation for utility firms.

Minerals and resources

MCG Melbourne Cricket Ground Sewer Mining Scheme

A number of innovative technologies have been developed that can extract heavy metals and minerals from the effluent discharges from animal farms and wastewater treatment plants. Some of these can be reused in the industry, while others such as phosphorus, can be used as fertilizer for agriculture. 

Turning algae into energy

Bioreactive facade.

Algae processing bio-reactors don’t just treat and clean  wastewater – they also produce usable materials such as biomass (for energy production) or otherwise hard to synthesise chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry.

Going circular: innovating across the water cycle

Unlocking the potential

These are still relatively new ideas in the water sector. But Arup is already taking a lead, working as knowledge partner to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the research and advocacy group for the circular economy, helping them to understand its implications for the built environment.

As part of this process, our researchers are currently re-imagining the water sector’s underlying business model for opportunities to unlock its circular potential, making it more sustainable and commercially valuable over the long-term.