Discharge or reuse? Comparative sustainability assessment of anaerobic and aerobic membrane bioreactors

Xu X., Dao H., Bair R., UMAN A. E. , Yeh D., Zhang Q.

JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY, vol.49, no.3, pp.545-556, 2020 (Peer-Reviewed Journal) identifier identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 49 Issue: 3
  • Publication Date: 2020
  • Doi Number: 10.1002/jeq2.20012
  • Journal Indexes: Science Citation Index Expanded, Scopus, Aerospace Database, Agricultural & Environmental Science Database, Analytical Abstracts, Applied Science & Technology Source, Aqualine, Aquatic Science & Fisheries Abstracts (ASFA), BIOSIS, CAB Abstracts, Chemical Abstracts Core, Communication Abstracts, Compendex, Computer & Applied Sciences, EMBASE, Environment Index, Greenfile, MEDLINE, Metadex, Pollution Abstracts, Veterinary Science Database, Civil Engineering Abstracts
  • Page Numbers: pp.545-556


Water reuse is believed to be a sustainable solution to overcome the scarcity of freshwater. Aerobic and anaerobic membrane bioreactors are becoming an effective technology for wastewater treatment and reuse. Aerobic membrane bioreactors show good nutrient removal, whereas those that are anaerobic have nutrient-rich effluent, enabling the direct agricultural use of the effluent. As a result, the end use will dictate the potential environmental impacts of the bioreactor's application. Therefore, with the consideration of the end use (i.e., discharge or reuse) of the effluent, this study aimed to compare the environmental and economic impacts associated with full-scale aerobic and anaerobic membrane bioreactors for municipal wastewater treatment under different end use scenarios using life cycle assessment and cost analysis. The results of these analyses show that anaerobic bioreactors have greater environmental impacts and life cycle cost than aerobic bioreactors in the discharge scenario due to the incorporation of a biological nutrient removal system. In the reuse scenario, anaerobic membrane bioreactors have lower impacts that are attributable to the offset of the nutrients required for crops, and the potential benefits vary depending on the types of crops receiving the reclaimed water. Integrating anaerobic membrane bioreactors with agricultural fertigation resulted in effluent water nitrate concentrations (after crop uptake and soil treatment) of <2 mg L-1 in most U.S. states. This indicated that the use of the anaerobic membrane bioreactors effluent for fertigation could be a win-win solution to both irrigation water shortage and high environmental impact associated with nutrient removal.