Hydroponic nutrients contain a wide array of chemicals that are fundamentally contaminating to water sources and can heavily contribute to eutrophication. Both run-to-waste and recirculating systems eventually generate significant amounts of waste as nutrient solutions cannot be infinitely used – even when recirculation is done – due to the many ways in which a solution can deteriorate (see here). Because of this reason, it becomes important to figure out ways to treat this waste and ensure its nutritional content is adequately reduced before it is flushed down the drain. In this post I will go through the ways in which this can be done and which might be the more practical implementations for small/medium sized hydroponic installations. A lot of the content below will be based on information obtained from this review article on the subject.
The main problem when dealing with hydroponic waste solutions are the nitrogen and phosphorous content, as these are normally the nutrients limiting plant growth in bodies of fresh water. A hydroponic solution where most N and P is removed can be mostly considered safe for disposal as the contaminating power of the solution will be substantially lower once these two nutrients are removed. This is why most of efforts – both in the academic literature and in real life situations – are focused on the removal of these nutrients whenever nutrient solution is to be discarded. The following are the most tested methods for the treatment of hydroponic waste solutions.
Denitrification using anaerobic organisms. In this process the solution is treated with bacteria that denitrify the nutrient solution by reducing the nitrate to nitrite and then to nitrogen gas. The process usually requires some sacrificial substance for oxidation – such as a thiosulfate or elemental sulfur granules – the process can be quite successful, removing more than 90% of the nitrogen from solutions. An issue however is that a carbon source is also needed – because the bacteria need to be fed – and this is the most important cost for this method of removal. This process also fails to address the removal of phosphorous from solution as it’s mainly focused on the removal of nitrogen.
Artificial wetlands. This is the method with the lowest cost as it makes use of plants to consume all the nutrients left within the solution. It not only addresses N and P but also removes other macro and micro nutrients from the solution, generating the best effluents in terms of mineral content. Usually either common reed (Phragmites australis) or common bulrush (Scirpus lacustris) are planted and fed the waste nutrient solution so that they can process it for a predetermined period of time before the solution is fully disposed of. This process can achieve a removal efficiency greater than 90% for both N and P. Its main disadvantage is the need for a considerable amount of space and issues working when temperatures drop significantly, as these wetlands are not built inside greenhouse environments to keep costs low.
Algae. In the same way as artificial wetlands, microscopic algae can also remove N and P from nutrient solutions. The algae are usually grown in transparent tubes, where the waste nutrient solution is run through. The algae can be very efficient at removing these nutrients although they will not be very efficient at removing some micro nutrients from the solution. Efficiencies greater than 90% have been achieved for both N and P removal in the academic literature. These organisms can also then be harvested in order to obtain an additional product for the hydroponic installation, which gives this process the unique opportunity to add value instead of just being an additional cost to the grower. Chlorella vulgaris and Dunaliella salina are the two most studied algae species for hydroponic nutrient solution waste treatment.
Any waste treatment process will introduce an additional cost to a hydroponic crop. However this might not be optional in the future, as regulators in the US and Europe tighten their monitoring of hydroponic waste and restrict the amount of pollutants that might be dumped into the sewage system. With this in mind, it’s good to start thinking about ways in which your hydroponic waste could be treated and what might be the lowest cost method to do so. If you have significant amounts of area then an artificial wetland might be the best method to follow while if you arr short on space, algae will offer you the best method to treat your solution with a small footprint. However algae also have light needs, which means you might need to provide artificial light to them if you do not have the outdoor or greenhouse space to accommodate them.
Polluting is something none of us wants to do and ensuring hydroponic waste effluents are properly and economically treated is going to be important for hydroponic cultivation to be sustainable going forward.