A new approach to circularity assessment for a sustainable water sector: Accounting for environmental functional flows and losses

Anurag Bhambhani*, Zoran Kapelan, Jan Peter van der Hoek

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Resource recovery solutions can reduce the water sector's resource use intensity. With many such solutions being proposed, an assessment method for effective decision-making is needed. The water sector predominantly deals with biogeochemical resources (e.g., nitrogen) that are different from technical resources (e.g., industrial coagulants) in three ways: (1) they move through the environment in natural cycles; (2) they fulfil different human and environmental functions; and (3) they are subject to substantial environmental losses. Whilst several circularity assessment methods exist for technical resources, biogeochemical resources have received less attention. To address this, a well-established material circularity indicator (MCI) method is modified. This is done by redefining the terms: restoration, regeneration, and linear flows to create a new circularity assessment approach. The new approach is demonstrated in a real-life case study involving treated wastewater (TW) fertigation. The new approach reveals that using the original MCI method underestimates the circularity of resource recovery solutions involving biogeochemical resources. This is because, in the original MCI method, only the flows that are reused/recycled for human functions can be considered circular, whereas, in the new approach, one also considers flows such as N2 emission and groundwater infiltration as circular flows. Even though these may not be reuse/recycle type flows, they still contribute towards future resource availability and, thus, towards sustainability. The modified assessment method shows that TW fertigation can significantly improve nitrogen and water circularity. However, careful planning of the fertigation schedule is essential since increasing fertigation frequency leads to lower water but higher nitrogen circularity. Additionally, collecting drainage water for reuse can improve nitrogen circularity. In conclusion, using the modified MCI approach, circularity can be assessed in a manner that is better aligned with sustainability.

Original languageEnglish
Article number166520
Number of pages12
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Biogeochemical resources
  • Circularity assessment
  • Fertigation
  • Resource recovery
  • Wastewater reuse


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