I am aware that people in the UK do not choose their water company, since they get supplied by whichever company is operating in their local area. However, I think it is still important to consider the environmental impact of this industry and compare different companies to see where improvements are possible. Wessex Water has a very strong record in pursuing sustainability, setting ambitious goals and achieving them. However, in December 2020, there has been an explosion at a waste treatment plant that belongs to their subsidiary company. An article by the Bristol Cable claims that those kinds of incidents at anaerobic digestion plants aren't unprecedented and that unless there are casualties, those are not reported. The technical investigation is ongoing, but I hope some changes will be implemented soon. It was quite shocking for me to find out that things like that still happen in the UK and I think it is important to be aware of this for the consumers.
Wessex Water extracts 80% of its water from aquifers (underground reservoirs) and the rest from surface reservoirs. Water from aquifers contain fewer impurities and require less treatment, so fewer chemicals are used in the process. The company is very transparent about the processes and chemicals they use, although those seem to be fairly standard across the UK. Their drinking water quality is of high standard; in 2019 Wessex Water had 99.97% Overall Mean Zonal Compliance with British Standards for drinking water, which was above the 99.96% average across England and Wales. Currently, there is no requirement for water companies to remove microplastics from drinking water in the UK, although their effect on human health is unclear. I was pleased to see that Wessex Water has acknowledged this issue and is contributing to research in the field. According to UK Water Industry Research, the current treatment processes effectively remove 99.9% of microplastics from water which alleviates some concerns. In 2019-2020, their water leakage was better than the average in the industry at 5.1 m3 per km of water mains per day, which amounted to 61.4 Ml per day. Wessex water is looking to further reduce leakage by 15% by 2025 by committing to fix 80% of reported leaks within a day of being reported. The company is managing 11,945 km of water mains and I understand that identifying and fixing leaks can be challenging. Overall, I am impressed by those statistics.
As to their sewage treatment service, some areas they serve struggle with high groundwater levels which means water can infiltrate the sewers through cracks and cause sewer flooding. In addition to this, some areas have combined sewerage systems – those are older systems which mix the waste water with surface water and, during heavy rainfall, can flood or back up sewage into homes and towns. In order to prevent this, companies are allowed to discharge untreated effluent into rivers, seas and lakes via storm overflows. In 2019-2020, 0.57 properties per 10,000 sewage connections were flooded by sewage, which is the lowest number across England and Wales. To achieve this, the company has been educating its customers on what they are and aren't allowed to flush down their toilets and sinks (blockages in the system are also a common cause of flooding). In addition to this, they are working to improve their system by installing monitoring equipment, increasing their sewer storage capacity and installing ultraviolet equipment to improve the quality of discharged water. In 2020, BBC has reported that Wessex Water had 28,964 incidents of sewage spills through storm overflows. Although it is concerning, this number is not the highest in England and, unfortunately, sewage spills seem to be a common problem in the water sector in the UK. Wessex Water has a platform (Coastwatch) that reports which storm overflows are operating in near real-time to inform people whether those beaches and rivers are safe to use.
Wessex Water is a three-time winner of the Queen's Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development, they have also been rated ‘industry-leading’ in 2019 by the Environment Agency (a public body funded by UK government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). 26% of their energy comes from their own renewable sources including advanced anaerobic digestion of sewer sludge that produces biogas and fertiliser used for agriculture. In 2019 and 2020, Wessex Water has diverted 99.75% of its waste away from landfill by reducing the amount of plastic they use, recycling 100% of their sludge into fertiliser and composting the non-flushable items (e.g., wet wipes and sanitary products) that have ended up in the sewers. To further reduce plastic waste in the area, Wessex Water is building refill points for reusable water bottles in some public areas to help locals reduce their use of bottled water. In 2018-19, their gross operational greenhouse gas emissions were 212 kg CO2e per Ml of water treated and 180 kg CO2e per Ml of sewage treated, which is similar to other companies in England. Wessex Water (along with other water companies in England) has committed to achieve Net Zero operational carbon emissions by 2030 and is developing a roadmap to achieve this. In addition to this, this company is also working with local farmers to promote more sustainable practices, improve water quality and biodiversity in their catchment areas. Overall, this company seems to care about sustainability and environment and is quite transparent about their operations.
Wessex Water is owned by YTL Corporation Berhad, a Malaysian integrated infrastructure conglomerate. YTL Corporation is involved in some unsustainable practices, including cement manufacture and production of electricity from coal. However, they also support shools and charities in Malaysia and are trying to make the switch towards renewable energy sources by installing 39 micro hydro units to support off-grid households in Indonesia. In 2009, Wessex Water has created GENeco – a recycling and renewable energy company with a circular approach – they biodegrade sewage, food and industrial waste to produce biofuels, renewable electricity and fertilisers which they can then sell. This help reduce the carbon footprint and fully utilises resources. Both GENeco and Wessex Water hold various awards for their sustainable practices and overall have shown strong commitment to maintaining the environment. However, in December 2020, a GENeco waste treatment plant in Avonmouth has exploded taking lives of 4 people. According to the Bristol Cable, experts have expressed their concerns over the safety standards at some anaerobic digestion plants, since this incident wasn't the only one of its kind, the article also claims that incidents with no casualties are not being reported. The investigation is ongoing, but it is a concern for me, since there are approximately 600 anaerobic digestion plants operating or in development across the UK.