Many alternative technologies are currently under development in Switzerland. In Geneva, housing cooperatives separate and treat urine from household wastewater on site. The Swiss company Laufen has been marketing a toilet for separate recovery of nutrients from urine since 2019. Eawag and Empa are developing and testing decentralised wastewater treatment in the NEST building, and the cities of Bern and Freiburg are leading the way in the development of neighbourhoods with decentralised wastewater treatment. Together with partners from France and Germany, the composting toilet manufacturer Kompotoi from Zurich wants to herald a sanitation turnaround and close resource cycles by using nutrients from the faeces and urine of public composting toilets as fertiliser in agriculture.
Combining low-tech with high-tech
As a study by Eawag researchers Jonas Heiberg and Bernhard Truffer revealed, the approaches vary greatly. While some actors prefer low-tech solutions, others rely on high-tech. This can result in self-contained innovation scenarios that may even work contrary to one another. This is where the Wings Research Programme comes in. “It is only when research, politics, authorities, urban planning and engineering and architectural firms work together that sustainable and practicable solutions can be developed for different cities and requirements and effectively implemented,” explains Sabine Hoffmann.
In order to develop these kinds of solutions and implement them in practice, Wings works in an interdisciplinary team of engineers and social scientists from Eawag’s departments of Process Engineering, Urban Water Management, Environmental Social Sciences, and Sanitation, Water and Solid Waste for Development. The programme builds on existing inter- and transdisciplinary projects, some of which work together with actors from policy, practice and industry. It bundles these research projects under one roof and uses synergies to support processes of change for sustainable urban water management in developed, emerging economies and developing countries. “Our objective is to learn from past and current experiences in developing and implementing concrete solutions, allowing us to initiate and support processes of change,” says Sabine Hoffmann.
Paradigm shift from a linear to a circular way of thinking and acting
Wings also highlights areas where adjustments are needed to make sewage systems fit for the future. For example, changes are not just needed in infrastructures, markets and the alignment of technical and social innovations, socio-technical solutions must also be tested first on a small scale, e.g. in living labs, pilot projects or experimental rooms. This requires suitable framework conditions with room for failure. All the relevant actors must of course be systematically and fully involved in these processes of change. And ultimately there needs to be a paradigm shift "from a linear to a circular way of thinking and acting" that should be appropriately conveyed in schools, colleges, universities and centres for vocational training and continuing education.