From Toilet to Tap: Why Our Future Water May be Recycled

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“We call it the big tooth comb—step one of the filtration process!” Snehal Desai shouts above the sound of sluicing water. There’s a visible torrent of raw sewage water flowing through a channel below us at the Orange County Sanitation District, a facility that treats waste from the toilets, showers, sinks, and gutters of 1.5 million suburban Californians. An enormous rake descends into the depths of the sewage flow and brings up cardboard, wet wipes, tampons, egg shells, marbles, toys, tennis balls, sneakers—all the detritus that can’t fit through the screen covering the plant’s intake.

The flow that passes through the screen has now begun a journey through an advanced purification process that culminates in a stage of reverse osmosis (RO) filtration similar to the process used at the Sorek plant—the world’s largest desalination plant, processing 200 million gallons of seawater per day. Daily, the plant pumps out 100 million gallons of drinking water—enough to supply 850,000 county residents—which makes this the largest “toilet to tap” facility on the planet.