Sure, this idea from a wastewater treatment company may sound gross, but the plan really makes a lot of sense.
When news of a bid by a Portland-area wastewater treatment company to turn recycled sewage into beer made headlines this week, it didn’t take long for at least one commenter to offer some cheeky suggestions for labels: Naturally Yellow, Distinktive Brew, Organic Beer, Second Time Around, Pissa Beer... But what’s surprising here isn’t that anyone would want to do such a thing—it’s how behind-the-curve hip, earthy, compost-happy Portland seems to be when it comes to turning toilet water into something well worth drinking.
While this marks the first time that the state has considered allowing residents to drink treated wastewater, utilities and regulators elsewhere in the country haven’t been so lucky.
Although it at first may seem inevitable that toilet-beer would emerge from a city whose unofficial slogan is “Keep Portland Weird”—at the very least it sounds like a sendup straight out of Portlandia—perhaps the notion of drinking something associated with human waste is causing a stir in 2015 is because of the Pacific Northwest’s rain-soaked reputation. If we were talking about turning sewage into, say, sunlight, the city may very well have emerged on the cutting edge.
In the Southwest, residents would gladly take some of Portland’s wet, gray weather—anything for a bit of rain. As it is, nearly a third of the country (including a significant part of southern Oregon) is enduring a prolonged period of moderate to extreme drought, a situation that experts say may only be exacerbated by climate change. Thus, parch-prone cities in the U.S. and around the world are focusing their attention on taking water that was once flushed and forgotten and turning it into ultra-pure drinking water.
Clean Water Services, located in Hillsboro, Oregon, just west of Portland, might get permission to supply treated wastewater to a group of local home brewers so that they, in turn, can produce small batches of novelty beer for special events. But it depends on the company’s ability to jump through a lot of regulatory hoops.
Thus far, as Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, Clean Water Services has managed to get the green light from the state health authority. Now it must secure approval from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which is holding a public hearing on the proposal next month. Even if that all goes well, the company “will still need additional state approvals for an amended Recycled Water Reuse Plan before the brews are cleared for drinking,” according to OPB.
In bone-dry California and Texas, those debates over health and regulatory considerations are over—toliet-to-tap is increasingly a thing. In November, San Diego’s city council voted unanimously to advance a $2.5-billion plan to recycle wastewater, with an eye toward supplying about a third of the city’s water needs by 2035. The vote signaled a stunning turnaround in public opinion: A decade ago, only one in four San Diegans favored turning wastewater into drinking water, according to Fox News. By 2012, three in four did.
Farther north, in Orange County (hardly a bastion of progressivism), the water utility has been transforming sewage into tap water since 2008. This year, it’s on track to expand its recycling operation from 70 million gallons per day to 100 million—enough to quench the thirst of about a third of the county’s population. Municipalities ranging from El Paso, Texas, to Fairfax County, Virginia, have also launched wastewater recycling programs.
“It’s a watershed moment right now. We’re seeing widespread acceptance of these technologies,” Mike Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District, told CNN last year. “As the shortages become more extreme and water supplies are cut, it has raised awareness that we need to find alternative resources.”
So why not wastewater beer too? The process described by Clean Water Services in Oregon appears to be more or less the same one used in Orange County and elsewhere: a three-stage system whereby sewage goes through “ultra-filtration” followed by reverse osmosis and then exposure to UV light and oxidization, which kills off any remaining bacteria. The result, advocates say, is drinking water that’s cleaner than what most people get out of their kitchen faucets. That the treated water is often released back into the groundwater supply only to be collected and treated again is largely political (and unnecessary)—the trip down into the aquifer and back up again is essentially to mollify a squeamish public that fails to understand the basics of hydrology.
“It’s the same water now as when dinosaurs walked the earth,” Melissa Meeker, executive director of the advocacy group WateReuse, told CNN. “It’s about understanding the water cycle and how we fit into it. Once people think about it, they become more open-minded.”
To wit: rivers. If you live anywhere that gets any portion of its water supply from a river, you’re likely already drinking “recycled wastewater,” as the treated sewage from towns upstream gets cycled through your own municipal water system.
Thus, in the running competition to come up with a name for Portland’s newfangled brew, here’s a suggestion: Just call it beer.