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Acceptance of recycled drinking water

January 2020: Recycled drinking water may contribute to circular water consumption and address increasing water scarcity. However, public acceptance remains low and forms a key barrier to successfully implementing water recycling strategies.


Against the backdrop of increasing water scarcity paired with population growth and higher water consumption rates, cities and regions have been turning their eye towards recycled drinking water. The process seeks to replicate nature’s recycling process and purifies waste waters to reach drinking level standards. Wastewater is being subjected to ultra-filtration, reverse osmosis, UV disinfection, re-enrichment with minerals before being stored in a basin. The water is extracted from the aquifer and treated prior to consumer distribution. Blind taste tests show that people preferred the taste of recycled water in comparison to tap water and safety tests rate recycled drinking water at higher safety standards. Nonetheless, recent evidence shows continuously low acceptance rates for recycled drinking water. Researchers identified the psychology of ‘feeling of disgust’ and concerns about cleanliness as key barriers for public acceptance and thresholds for consumer behaviour change. Other barriers included misinformation, ignorance, and people’s desires to conform to social norms.

Implications and opportunities

Research shows that recycled drinking water is safe, clean, drought-proof and an environmentally sound concept. |It is already well-established in Windhoek where this has been in place since 2001[1] Increasing public acceptance of recycled drinking water in other cities may support the transition to self-sustainable buildings that use rainwater, toilet water, cleaning wastewater, etc. to establish ‘circular’ use of water. Such circular use of water may be particularly beneficial for regions with population growth, limited sanitary infrastructures or in drought prone regions . The paper identifies peer use and endorsements as key elements of public awareness campaigns and education on safety to increase public acceptance. These pathways could be re-enforced by offering financial benefits that incentivise the use of recycled drinking water.


There is limited data availability engaging with public acceptance of recycled drinking water and the study’s results should only be seen as preliminary findings. More research will be needed to establish a robust evidence base and inform intervention strategies. Experience from pioneering cities, e.g. Windhoek, could provide further insight.


Harmon, D., Gauvain, M., (2019). Influence of internet-based messages and personal motivations on water-use decisions. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 41 (6), 341.

CBSN (2019). San Francisco Recycled Water Program Pushing Wastewater Towards Drinkability. Retrieved from

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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.