10.3 Microbes in Sewage Treatment

We know that large quantities of waste water are generated everyday in cities and towns. A major component of this waste water is human excreta. This municipal waste-water is also called sewage.

It contains large amounts of organic matter and microbes. Many of which are pathogenic. Have you ever wondered where this huge quantity of sewage or urban waste water is disposed off daily? This cannot be discharged into natural water bodies like rivers and streams directly – you can understand why.

Before disposal, hence, sewage is treated in sewage treatment plants (STPs) to make it less polluting. Treatment of waste water is done by the heterotrophic microbes naturally present in the sewage. This treatment is carried out in two stages:

Primary treatment : These treatment steps basically involve physical removal of particles – large and small – from the sewage through filtration and sedimentation.

These are removed in stages; initially, floating debris is removed by sequential filtration. Then the grit (soil and small pebbles) are removed by sedimentation. All solids that settle form the primary sludge, and the supernatant forms the effluent. The effluent from the primary settling tank is taken for secondary treatment.


Secondary treatment or Biological treatment : The primary effluent is passed into large aeration tanks (Figure 10.6) where it is constantly agitated mechanically and air is pumped into it. This allows vigorous growth of useful aerobic microbes into flocs (masses of bacteria associated with fungal filaments to form mesh like structures).

While growing, these microbes consume the major part of the organic matter in the effluent. This significantly reduces the BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) of the effluent. BOD refers to the amount of the oxygen that would be consumed if all the organic matter in one liter of water were oxidised by bacteria.

The sewage water is treated till the BOD is reduced. The BOD test measures the rate of uptake of oxygen by micro-organisms in a sample of water and thus, indirectly, BOD is a measure of the organic matter present in the water.

The greater the BOD of waste water, more is its polluting potential. Once the BOD of sewage or waste water is reduced significantly, the effluent is then passed into a settling tank where the bacterial ‘flocs’ are allowed to sediment.

This sediment is called activated sludge. A small part of the activated sludge is pumped back into the aeration tank to serve as the inoculum. The remaining major part of the sludge is pumped into large tanks called anaerobic sludge digesters. Here, other kinds of bacteria, which grow anaerobically, digest the bacteria and the fungi in the sludge.

During this digestion, bacteria produce a mixture of gases such as methane, hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide. These gases form biogas and can be used as source of energy as it is inflammable. The effluent from the secondary treatment plant is generally released into natural water bodies like rivers and streams.

You can appreciate how microbes play a major role in treating millions of gallons of waste water everyday across the globe. This methodology has been practiced for more than a century now, in almost all parts of the world.

Till date, no manmade technology has been able to rival the microbial treatment of sewage. You are aware that due to increasing urbanisation, sewage is being produced in much larger quantities than ever before.

However the number of sewage treatment plants has not increased enough to treat such large quantities. So the untreated sewage is often discharged directly into rivers leading to their pollution and increase in water-borne diseases.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has initiated Ganga Action Plan and Yamuna Action Plan to save these major rivers of our country from pollution. Under these plans, it is proposed to build a large number of sewage treatment plants so that only treated sewage may be discharged in the rivers. A visit to a sewage treatment plant situated in any place near you would be a very interesting and educating experience.

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