Wastewater knowledge in the dumps

Areas with no connection to mains sewer pipes and systems refer to onsite domestic wastewater management systems (OWMSs) such as septic tanks to manage wastewater.  

According to a La Trobe University study, existing wastewater literature fails to identify a number of factors that lead to OWMS failure which can cause damage to environmental and public health.

septicEnvironmental health honours student, Jason Barnes, researched the Loddon Mallee Region to find better ways to inform the public on wastewater management for his thesis—Issues leading to the failure of OWMSs in the Loddon Mallee Region: Environmental health practitioners’ perceptions.

‘This study provides a holistic overview of the issues that lead to OWMS failure considering issues that present beyond the components of technology and equipment,’ says Mr Barnes. 

‘It was identified that issues that lead to failure include a lack of adequate knowledge, negligent or non-compliant behaviours, and unsupportive environments, while the nature of the system and its components are simply one aspect of OWMS failure.’

In his thesis, Mr Barnes found that to safely and sustainably accept, treat and contain wastewater within an OWMS, individual knowledge is required to operate and maintain the system to prevent failure.  

‘While legislation and guidelines have been enacted to direct wastewater management decisions and practices, knowledge is again required to interpret such standards and the implications of the failure to meet them.’  

A number of management strategies to prevent OWMS failure were sought by the study.

‘These strategies include education of stakeholders, enforcement, and greater collaboration between stakeholders to address issues leading to failure,’ says Mr Barnes.

‘The strategies will expand on the little relevant wastewater literature available and identify that management strategies exist primarily beyond the components of OWMSs.’

To date, research in wastewater predominantly ignores the human activities that extend beyond, and influence the functioning of OWMSs.  

‘Much of the research remains restrained within a technological ethos, testing water samples for their constituents, identifying soil types, identifying climate zones, all failing to directly investigate human interactions that bring about these issues and that determine the functional status of OWMSs.’

Mr Barnes found that through education, enforcement and collaboration individuals would be able to better manage wastewater systems to prevent damage to environmental and public health.

‘Education of plumbers, system owners, community members, persons using public facilities, other departments of local government, and external agencies such as real estate agents and water authorities would greatly improve the capacity for people to manage these systems efficiently.’

Enforcement was also identified as a viable management strategy to change negligent and non-compliant behaviours relating to OWMS installation, alteration and operation.

Mr Barnes also found that sharing information would help ensure public and environmental health.
‘Collaboration as in the sharing of information and knowledge on technology, best practice and functional status of OWMSs between local government and water authorities will help inform people to effectively manage these systems.’

‘It is important for the Environment Protection Authority, Catchment Management Authorities, the Department of Sustainability and Environment, plumbers and system owners to all collaborate in order to reduce problems that may jeopardise public and environmental health,’ says Mr Barnes

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Meghan Lodwick

La Trobe University Communications Officer
T:  03 9479 5353 M:  0418 495 941 E: M.Lodwick@latrobe.edu.au