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How ISO 14001 implementation helps wastewater treatment

Many organizations use large amounts of water in their industrial processes and, in so doing, cause potable water to become unfit for use. They are obliged by law to decontaminate the effluent to an acceptable level prior to discharge. This is achieved by carrying out one or several wastewater treatment processes. What does ISO 14001 have to do with any of this? The answer can be summarized in one phrase: policy commitments. Learn more about connection between ISO 14001 and wastewater treatment in this article.

Importance of policy in wastewater treatment

Clause 5.2 of ISO 14001:2015 requires top management to put in place an environmental policy that is based on the organization’s purpose, and that addresses the environmental impacts that may result from their activities. As a main example, we will consider Company A, which operates a vehicle maintenance depot. Their wastewater contains oils, greases, and solid matter. Among their key environmental impacts are ground water and soil pollution from pollutants entering waterways and storm water drains due to spillages or leakages of oils, detergents, and solvents. The policy must include three specific commitments that apply to all organizations implementing ISO 14001.

Firstly, they must identify and meet compliance obligations, which include all applicable legal requirements as well as any pertinent needs and expectations of relevant interested parties (other than regulatory authorities). For Company A, this means collecting their wastewater (effluent) in a sump prior to treatment in an onsite effluent treatment plant (See Fig 1) designed to remove contaminants prior to release to the municipal sewer. Secondly, they must make a commitment to protect the environment by preventing pollution, and make other specific commitments that are dictated by the nature of their environmental impacts. The final commitment is to ensure continual improvement of environmental performance.

The law comes first

Of course, the requirement to comply with applicable legal requirements when it comes to wastewater applies to all organizations, whether they are ISO 14001-certified or not. This is the first priority to avoid the threat of fines, prosecution, or even loss of their operating license. The difference is that for those implementing ISO 14001, complying with legislation is the absolute minimum. Other voluntary actions will be taken based on the need to protect the environment, to improve on previous performance, and to take into consideration interested parties’ needs and expectations.

How an effluent treatment plant must comply with legal requirements

The effluent treatment plant removes suspended solid matter (as sludge) and floating oils from the wastewater. The remaining emulsified oil is removed by chemical treatment using hydrochloric acid and aluminum sulfate. Lime is added to neutralize the wastewater prior to discharge to the municipal sewer. Here’s a schematic diagram of such an effluent treatment plant.

ISO 14001 and wastewater treatment: Required processes

The quality of treated effluent will be subject to regulations, typically set by the local authority. They will set the maximum allowed contamination levels in the discharge water. Set limits will include parameters such as zinc, cyanide, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), PH, BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand), SS (suspended solids), etc. If the treated effluent BOD exceeds the set limit of say, < 300mg/l, then Company A would pay a proportionate surcharge.

To learn about the most important ISO 14001 benefits, read the article 6 Key Benefits of ISO 14001.

How to protect the environment within wastewater treatment

How do we protect the environment, beyond what is required by law? Here are several examples.

Company A may have a policy requirement for sustainable resource use, which means they recycle and reuse wastewater in cooling equipment. This would also mean that high-quality water supplies are reserved for potable use. By comparison, a company without ISO 14001 may simply discharge their treated effluent to the municipal sewer.

Company B is a Coca-Cola franchise holder manufacturing and bottling soft drinks. They are subject to an internal Coca-Cola Environmental Management System with specific performance requirements for wastewater quality, which may be more stringent than the local legal requirements. These would have to be incorporated as compliance obligations. So, while a company without these obligations might be happy to budget for BOD surcharges, Company B would include steps to further lower the BOD to the internal standard.

Company C is a mining company extracting water from a river for use in their processing plant. In order to take into account the “needs and expectations of interested parties,” they might recycle water for agricultural use (and even provide irrigation infrastructure) by the local rural community. This would also help protect their social license.

The disposal of the contaminants, oil and sludge, has further implications for pollution of the environment. The waste oil may be recycled and used as a fuel (i.e., in a cement kiln) in order to reduce the burden on the environment.

For more about handling waste, read the article 7 steps in handling waste according to ISO 14001.

The commitments made in the policy should be translatable into environmental objectives that operationalize the policy. Any organization producing wastewater would be required by law to remove contaminants added by their processes, or reduce them to acceptable limits, before release. For more about policy, read the article How to write an ISO 14001 environmental policy.

The bottom line is improvement

Finally, organizations implementing ISO 14001 are obliged to make continual improvement a permanent objective. This means they must strive for performance improvement, even if current performance is within legal parameters. Further effort can be made to reduce, for example, the sludge (extracted during wastewater treatment) that goes to the landfill, by optimizing the processes in the vehicle maintenance plant.

ISO 14001 puts extra demands on organizations that require them to prevent or mitigate negative environmental impacts beyond legal obligations, and to exploit any opportunities for improvement. Therefore, clear differences are expected in approach toward wastewater treatment, and in performance, between certified and non-certified organizations.

For more about clauses related to wastewater treatment, download this free white paper: Clause-by-clause explanation of ISO 14001:2015.

Advisera Theodora Rondozai
Theodora Rondozai
Theodora Rondozai is an analytical chemist by training (although she was last inside a lab many years ago), with work experience in England and Southern Africa. For 15 years she has been providing consultancy and training services to organizations or individuals who need to acquire the skills to implement or audit ISO standards-based management systems, including ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and ISO 45001. She is fascinated by people and runs workshops in order to “people-watch.” She is a contributor in the recently published book “Township Girls.”