Removal of organic and inorganic nutrients in a constructed rhizofiltration system using macrophytes and microbial biofilms
Mthembu, Mathews Simon
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Many households in developing countries are still without proper sanitation systems. The problems are even more prevalent in rural communities where there are no septic systems in place for the treatment of wastewater. This has resulted in the urgent need for the development and implementation of innovative wastewater treatment systems that are inexpensive, environmental friendly and are able to reduce contaminants to levels that pose no harm to the communities. Constructed rhizofiltration systems have been explored for this purpose. They have been used for many decades in many countries with varying degrees of success at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of wastewater treatment. Poor optimization of this technology has been due to limited information available about the roles played by the whole system as well as by each component involved in the treatment technology. The current work elucidates the role played by macrophytes and microbial biofilms in the removal of nutrients in the rhizofiltration system. Factors affecting waste removal as well as environmental friendliness of the system were also investigated. The rhizofiltration system was constructed in Durban and was divided into planted (planted with Phragmites australis and Kyllinga nemoralis) and unplanted (reference) section. Dissolved oxygen (DO), pH, water temperature, total dissolved solids (TDS), electrical conductivity (EC) and salinity were monitored. The removal efficiency of nutrients was measured using spectrophotometric methods by measuring the concentration of ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, phosphate and orthophosphate in the wastewater pre- and post-treatment. The total organic carbon, chemical oxygen demand (COD), total Kehldjahl nitrogen, biological oxygen demand (BOD), ammonia, nitrate and the flow rate of wastewater into the system from the settling tank were used for the estimation of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emitted from the rhizofilter using the 2009 EPA formulae. Both the planted and reference sections of the system removed nutrients with varying efficiencies. The reduction of nutrients in the rhizofilter was found to be seasonal, with most nutrients removed during the warm seasons. The system also retained more nutrients when wastewater containing low levels of nutrients was used. The unpaired t-test was used to determine the differences between nutrient removals between planted and reference sections. Higher reduction efficiencies of nutrients were obtained in the planted section. Up to 65% nitrite and 99% nitrate were removed while up to 86% total phosphorus was removed in a form of orthophosphate (86%). Removal of total nitrogen was shown to increase under high temperature conditions, while the same conditions decreased the total phosphorus removal. High temperatures also increased the performance of the system. The reduction of nutrients in the system corresponded to reduction of the chemical oxygen demand which also positively correlated to the dissolved oxygen concentration. Considering the discharge limits for all nutrients, the discharges in the effluent of the planted section were within the allowable limits as per South Africa’s Department of Water affairs and Forestry in 2012 but not in 2013. The results obtained in 2013 were due to increased nutrient loading introduced into the system. Diverse microbial communities occurred in the treatment system, with more diversity in the planted section. These organisms were supported by macrophytes in the planted section, and were responsible for nitrogen and phosphorus transformation. This explains why total nitrogen and phosphorus reduction was higher in the planted compared to the reference section. Both the planted and the reference sections of the rhizofiltration system produced the greenhouse gases. When the two sections were compared, the planted section produced more gases. Gases emitted by both sections were lower when compared to emission from sludge treatment reed beds and other conventional systems of wastewater treatments. These findings indicated that constructed rhizofiltration is a cleaner form of waste treatment, producing significantly less greenhouse gases and affecting less of a climate change. Findings of this work have revealed that rhizofiltration technology can be used as a low-cost alternative technology for the treatment of wastewater, using the combination of macrophytes and microbial biofilms. Macrophytes accumulated nitrogen and phosphorus as well as supported diverse microorganisms that metabolized and reduced nutrients in the rhizofiltration unit.