Article Alert! Drinking Wastewater: Public Trust in Potable Reuse

A new article in Science, Technology and Human Values brings up an issue that has been at the forefront of waste studies for several centuries: the relationships between technology, trust, taboo, sewage, and potable water. Kerri Jean Ormerod and Christopher A. Scott‘s “Drinking Wastewater: Public Trust in Potable Reuse,” is a short, focused piece on one area of the country already short on water: Arizona. While their piece doesn’t delve into the complicated Douglasian politics of matter out of place and how politics and technology play into the categorization of allowable and intolerable matter, their article is useful for thinking about sociotechnical systems and human values in relation to discards.

In the coming decades, highly treated wastewater, known as reclaimed water, is slated to be a major element of municipal water supplies. In particular, planners propose supplementing drinking water with reclaimed water as a sustainable solution to the growing challenge of urban water scarcity. Public opposition is currently considered the primary barrier to implementing successful potable water reuse projects; nonetheless, public responses to reclaimed water are not well understood. Based on a survey of over 250 residents of Tucson, Arizona, this article assesses the relationship between trust in the professional institutions responsible for municipal water development and willingness to drink reclaimed water. Results demonstrate that public acceptance of potable reuse is contingent on trust in the authorities who influence design of sociotechnical systems for water supply and reuse—including water and wastewater utilities, regulators, consultants, academics, and elected local officials. Findings emphasize the highly interdependent social and political factors that inform personal decisions to support or reject potable reuse. The authors suggest that achieving greater acceptance of potable reuse will require bringing local and regional water policy in line with public values, as well as finding ways to incorporate these values into the planning process.