Good Research Paper About Ethical Considerations In Engineering: Wastewater Treatment

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Treatment, Water, Waste, Design, Engineer, Ethics, Public, People

Pages: 8

Words: 2200

Published: 2021/03/19


Wastewater treatment defined

Wastewater treatment is a process that involves the removal of contaminants present in industrial, surface runoff, commercial, sewer inflow/infiltration, agricultural, and/or domestic effluents before reuse or discharge into the environment (CAEPA, 2015; Templeton and Butler, 2011).

Constituents of wastewater

Water forms a large percentage of the constituents of wastewater. Other likely constituents of wastewater include toxins such as agricultural and domestic pesticides, herbicides, poisonous substances and so forth; water; insoluble organic matter such as leaves, papers, food remains, feces, and so forth; soluble organic matter such as sugar, drugs, urea, proteins, and so forth; pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and other germs; gases such as methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and so forth; hormone, pharmaceutical drugs and effluents, biohazards, and so forth; animals such as insects, rats, small reptiles and fish, inorganic suspensions/sediments such as plastics, small stones, ceramics, sand, grit, metals, soil, and so forth; solids of domestic origin such as diapers, condoms, rags, handkerchiefs, toys, napkins, and so forth; and also emulsions such as oils, paints, grease, adhesives, and so forth (Templeton and Butler, 2011; Henze and Comeau, 2008).

Reasons for wastewater treatment

The principal aim of treatment of wastewater is to allow effluents from various sources to be disposed in a manner that is safe to human health and with minimum negative impacts to the natural environment. One of the best ways of disposing wastewater is irrigation since it involves not only disposal but effective utilization of wastewater. Wastewater used for irrigation undergoes slow treatment from the land. However, not all wastewater can be used for irrigation, aquaculture, and/or landscaping before some level of treatment is applied. Whatever the application, there is a minimum quality of effluent that must be met before treated wastewater is used for various purposes. Microbiological and chemical guidelines are used to come up with designs that meets the minimum acceptable standards (FAO, 2013; Templeton and Butler , 2011).

Stages of waste water treatment

A typical waste water treatment plant consists of preliminary treatment, primary treatment, secondary treatment, tertiary and/advanced treatment, disinfection, effluent storage, and discharge of treated waste water. Preliminary treatment involves removal of coarse solids and other large material present in the waste water. Primary treatment involves removal of organic and inorganic solids that can settle at the bottom of the vessel or float at the surface. Constituents such as oil and grease is removed by skimming. Secondary treatment involves removal of residual organic matter and inorganic solids. Any organic matter or dissolved biodegradable matter is removed using aerobic biological treatment processes. Some of the major components of the secondary treatment include activated sludge, trickling filters, and rotating biological contactors. Tertiary/advanced waste water treatment is employed in a situation where constituents that cannot be removed by secondary waste water treatment must be removed. These constituents include nitrogen and phosphorous. Tertiary/advanced stage can involve up to five zones including anaerobic fermentation zone, anoxic zone (low dissolved oxygen levels but nitrates present), aerobic zone (aerated), secondary anoxic zone, and final aeration zone. Disinfection stage involves the introduction of chlorine solution into the waste water where the dosage depends on the degree of contamination of waste water. Effluent storage is not regarded as part of the treatment stages yet it is an important one. Where treated waste water is to be reused in landscaping, irrigation, or any other purpose, storage is necessary (FAO, 2013, World Bank, 2015).

Waste water design professionals

The design of a waste water system is the responsibility of a licensed engineer with a strong bias in civil engineering. The design engineer would probably follow a typical engineering design process which involve: defining the problem, doing a background research, specification of requirements, brainstorming of solutions, performing development work, building a prototype, and testing and redesigning. A typical engineering design process is shown in Fig 1 below.
Although the design process for a waste water treatment plant may not strictly follow such a sequence of stages, it does not deviate much form this. Some of the stages may be eliminated or the sequence of design might not strictly follow this order. It must be stressed that only practicing engineers who are licensed to undertake such works and bound by the engineer’s codes of ethics (NSPE, 2007) are to be consulted. Anybody who is not licensed may not deliver the right job.

Need intended to fulfill

Waste water system design is intended to offer a solution to the treatment of various effluents which can be domestic, industrial, commercial, agricultural, surface run off, and so forth. The system takes in effluents from these various sources and process them to meet the minimum requirements for human safety and environmental pollution.


In a waste water treatment facility, a number of stakeholders are involved. While some of these stakeholders are directly involved, others are indirectly involved. Stakeholders include engineers, urban residents, and the clients who seek services of waste water design engineers, health service personnel, and communities. Communities can be living close to the site of effluents or very far away. The clients can be also part of the contributors to the effluents. Communities who live downstream in a river where waste water treated effluents are discharged upstream are in danger of disease and substance contamination if they use river water for irrigation, drinking, and bathing. The risks are high if they just take water without further treatment or if the effluents upstream are poorly treated due to faulty design.

Positive consequences

A waste water treatment facility has many positive consequences to the community and the environment (ecosystem) at large. Firstly, the designers get contracts to design the facility and earn income. Contractors too get paid to build the facility. The facility further creates employment for those who are employed to maintain it. Suppliers of maintenance equipment and/or chemicals also get income by delivering supplies. Communities would have otherwise been affected by bad untreated wastewater effluents are saved from the risks of diseases and other contaminants. On personal level, I would enjoy the protection from harmful contents of wastewater.
A waste water treatment facility reduce the toxins present in waste water which if it is discharged to the environment might end up killing aquatic and/or terrestrial species. Certain elements present in wastewater can have long term impact on the health of the community and they might be consumed indirectly by consumption of fish containing the bad elements like mercury or radioactive material. Pathogens and other disease causing organisms are eliminated by treating waste water and therefore minimizing likelihood of disease outbreaks. Treated waste water is can lessen the negative impact it can cause on drinking water, fishing, transportation, household needs, commerce, and recreation (OECD, 2011).

Negative consequences of the innovation

When designed, built, and operated well, a waste water treatment plant offers no negative consequences because its main purpose is to minimize the negative consequences of wastewater. In other words, a cost-benefit analysis shows the benefits of deployment of this technology exceeds the negative consequences such costs to the client. However, in certain circumstances, it might cause people to be careless in waste disposal with the assumption that there being a waste water treatment, they can then dispose of highly toxic substances in their effluents leading to the treatment plant. Some of these wastes might not be removed by the plant completely and might end up polluting the environment when the ‘treated’ wastewater is eventually discharged. Mitigation of negative consequences can be best done by creating awareness that the presence of a wastewater treatment facility does not imply people start being careless in their waste disposal. Also, people need to be told they should still handle waste water with care so that they don’t take treated waste water is 100% clean. Some people might drink or irrigate their crops using waste water with high concentration of pollutants.

Ethical Issues in Wastewater treatment design

Everything that an engineer do affects the community and environment in one or more ways. Sometimes the development of designs and resultant consequences are not carefully deliberated, expected or well understood but the impacts could be undesirable. The design of wastewater treatment facility is best left to a licensed engineer specialized in the design of wastewater treatment plant or related facilities. But like any other professional such as a doctor, the engineer is expected to be guided by ethics while doing his work. A number of ethical issues that can arise in the design of a wastewater treatment facility. Engineering code of ethics is very clear on matters of safety. Where public interests are concerned, engineers are expect to hold paramount the issues of public safety, health, and welfare. Unsafe products, materials, designs, and techniques exposes the public and the environment to risks. Engineers are expected to make decisions that are consistent with public health, safety, and welfare. Such decisions must also conform to the accepted engineering techniques, codes, standards, and approved practices. Engineers who flout such requirements can be held liable for their actions or inactions. Ethical behavior dictates that engineers do their work professionally. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, a situation of conflict of interest arise where an engineer’s professional obligations may be compromised due to self-interests leading to making of biased or unsound judgments. It could be an engineer being influenced by a contractor to use a material which is cheap but not strong or use of less materials to save on costs, and so forth.
Unethical behaviors goes against the tenets of utilitarianism. In a utilitarianism perspective, an action is considered to be right if it the outcome results in the greatest benefits and to the highest number of people (Bennet-Wood, 2005). This is to say, every action can be judged on whether it is good or bad after considering the nature of consequences it produce. An action that results in unhappiness to many people such as loss of lives or injury is regarded as a bad. However, an action whose outcomes translates to a lot of benefits to many people is considered good (West, 2004). Engineers, therefore, need to execute their professional responsibilities in a manner that results in benefits to many people. Unethical practices such as greed perpetuated by selfish interest’s ends up causing a lot of harm too many people including even the engineer himself. People might lose lives or get injured due to compromised or faulty engineering designs. In the process, the professional body might decide to withdraw the license of the engineer. Still, the engineer might be judged in a court of law and sentenced or fined, or both. Although the general moral rules apply in this scenario, there are circumstances when they cease to apply. This is when the intended action (s) is in pursuit of the good; the act to promote the overall happiness of the public. This is where the intent of implementing a certain decision bears no moral weight. For example, engineering designs have an element of uncertainty. In certain cases, the product or design may not work 100% due to the nature of the conditions subjected to by the user. It is worth noting that when designing or making a decision that calls for a professional input, the engineer consider the likely outcomes that might occur and their corresponding impact.
While it is easy to analyze utilitarianism theory in paper, implementing it is a practical situation can be quite difficult. For example, telling what outcome it may result for various people is not that easy (Rainbow, 2002). Sometimes personal feelings dictate that an action is in the best interest of the public and people would come to appreciate the consequences of the action. However, that might not be the case. A decision to recommend certain safety factor that would lead to escalated cost might attract public outrage if the outcome is to enhance safety of the public but the public has to pay more for the increased cost. It might be hard to certainly predict loading on a certain beam in future. The engineer might foresee a case where lot of effluents might be discharged from the surrounding in future and might wish to increase the size of the plant in the design to accommodate increasing population and save costs from periodic upgrading. The public may protest later when they realize this and the engineer might have little time to explain. Public ignorance on such matters at times puts the engineer in an ethical dilemma. The public might judge the action was wrong and that the engineer should have designed to accommodate the current population only. The alternative means might be to design to accommodate the current population but before long the facility is overwhelmed in handling the wastes due to increasing population. Funds might not be available by then and the public have to content with the situation as they blame whoever designed it.
The utilitarian viewpoint seems to apply only in circumstances where rules or practices that serve utilitarian ends are well understood. One, then, can justify his actions by invoking the generally observed practices, codes, or rules. But as noted earlier, complications arise. There are moments when there is total disregard to the rules and practices and it becomes unclear whether the application of utilitarian principles should continue. For example putting a poster warning “no stepping on grass” may remain valid according to utilitarian perspective if no one steps on grass. What will happen if all students step on grass to a point where there is no longer grass and the signpost still remains there? Complying with the warning is then lost. This is highlighted in Harris et al (2013) argument that one of the challenge of observing utilitarian perspective is the difficulty and controversy in determining the accurate nature of the practice or rule to be followed.


Bennett-Woods, D. (2005). Ethics at a Glance. Regis University. Retrieved from:
California Environmental Protection Agency (CAEPA). 2015. Wastewater. [Online] Available at: [accessed 16 April 2015]
Food and agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2013. Wastewater treatment [online] Available at: [accessed 17 April 2015]
Harris, C.E. Pritchard, M.S. Rabins, M.J. James, R. and Englehardt, E. 2013. Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases. Boston, MA: Wadsworth CENGAGE Learning
Henze, M. and Comeau, Y. 2008. Wastewater Characterization in Biological Wastewater Treatment: Principles Modelling and Design. London: IWA Publishing.
National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE).2007. NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers. [Online] Available at: [accessed 21 April 2015].
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 2011. OECD Studies on Water Benefits of Investing in Water and Sanitation: An OECD Perspective. Paris: OECD Publishing.
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Templeton, M.R. and Butler, D. 2011. Introduction to Wastewater Treatment. Bookboon.
West, H. R. (2004). An introduction to Mill's utilitarian ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
World Bank. 2015. Introduction to Wastewater Treatment Processes. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 18 April 2015]

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