Assessment of small mechanical wastewater treatment plants: Relative life cycle environmental impacts of construction and operations

Sussan Moussavi, Matthew Thompson, Shaobin Li, Bruce Dvorak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Many slow growing and shrinking rural communities struggle with aging or inadequate wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), and face challenges in constructing and operating such facilities. Although existing literature has provided insight into the environmental sustainability of large facilities, including both the construction and operational phases, these studies have not examined small, rural facilities treating less than 7000 m3/d (1.8 MGD) of wastewater in adequate depth and breadth. In this study, a detailed inventory of the construction and operational data for 16 case studies of small WWTPs was developed to elucidate their environmental life cycle impacts. An attributional LCA framework was followed. The results show that the environmental impacts of both the construction and operational phases are considerable. Energy use was the dominant contributor to the operational environmental impact, and improving energy efficiency of a plant may reduce the environmental impacts of a small WWTP. Construction impacts can vary considerably between facilities (e.g., coefficient of variation for the construction impacts ranged from 60% to 78% depending on the impact category). Process-related factors (e.g., concrete and reinforcing steel used in basins) are typically sized using the design flow; thus, much of the variability in construction impacts among plants stems from the non-process related infrastructure. Multiple regression analysis was used as an exploratory tool to identify which non-process related plant aspects contribute to the variable environmental impact of small WWTPs. These factors include aluminum, cast iron, and the capacity utilization ratio (defined as the ratio of average flow to design flow). Thus, industry practitioners should consider these factors when aiming to reduce the environmental impacts of a small WWTP related to construction. Scenario sensitivity analyses found that the environmental impact of construction became smaller with longer design life, and the end-of-life consideration does not heavily influence the environmental sustainability of a WWTP.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number112802
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
StatePublished - Aug 15 2021


  • Construction
  • Design
  • Energy efficiency
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Operation
  • Small wastewater treatment plant

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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