Wayback Machine Sanitary sewer Sewage treatment
Raw sewage arriving at a sewage treatment plant in Syria

Sewage, or domestic/municipal wastewater, is a type of wastewater that is produced by a community of people. It is characterized by volume or rate of flow, physical condition, chemical and toxic constituents, and its bacteriologic status (which organisms it contains and in what quantities). It consists mostly of greywater (from sinks, bathtubs, showers, dishwashers, and clothes washers), blackwater (the water used to flush toilets, combined with the human waste that it flushes away); soaps and detergents; and toilet paper (less so in regions where bidets are widely used instead of paper).

Sewage usually travels from a building's plumbing either into a sewer, which will carry it elsewhere, or into an onsite sewage facility (of which there are many kinds). Whether it is combined with surface runoff in the sewer depends on the sewer design (sanitary sewer or combined sewer). The reality is that most wastewater produced globally remains untreated, causing widespread water pollution, especially in low-income countries: a global estimate by UNDP and UN-Habitat is that 90% of all wastewater generated is released into the environment untreated.[1] In many developing countries the bulk of domestic and industrial wastewater is discharged without any treatment or after primary treatment only.

The term sewage is nowadays regarded as an older term and is being more and more replaced by "wastewater".[2] In general American English usage, the terms "sewage" and "sewerage" mean the same thing.[3][4][5] In common English usage, and in American technical and professional English usage, "sewerage" refers to the infrastructure that conveys sewage.[6]


Before the 20th century, sewers usually discharged into a body of water such as a stream, river, lake, bay, or ocean. There was no treatment, so the breakdown of the human waste was left to the ecosystem. Today, the goal is that sewers route their contents to a wastewater treatment plant rather than directly to a body of water. In many countries, this is the norm; in many developing countries, it may be a yet-unrealized goal.

Current approaches to sewage management may include handling surface runoff separately from sewage, handling greywater separately from blackwater (flush toilets), and coping better with abnormal events (such as peaks stormwater volumes from extreme weather).

Proper collection and safe, nuisance-free disposal of the liquid wastes of a community are legally recognized as a necessity in an urbanized, industrialized society.[7]


Greywater samples before and after treatment in a constructed wetland in Peru


Organic pollutants and nutrients

Sewage is a complex mixture of chemicals, with many distinctive chemical characteristics. These include high concentrations of ammonium, nitrate, nitrogen, phosphorus, high conductivity (due to high dissolved solids), high alkalinity, with pH typically ranging between 7 and 8. The organic matter of sewage is measured by determining its biological oxygen demand (BOD) or the chemical oxygen demand (COD).


Sewage contains human feces, and therefore often contains pathogens of one of the four types:[8][9]

Sewage can be monitored for both disease-causing and benign organisms with a variety of techniques. Traditional techniques involve filtering, staining, and examining samples under a microscope. Much more sensitive and specific testing can be accomplished with DNA sequencing, such as when looking for rare organisms, attempting eradication, testing specifically for drug-resistant strains, or discovering new species.[11][12][13] Sequencing DNA from an environmental sample is known as metagenomics.


Sewage also contains environmental persistent pharmaceutical pollutants. Trihalomethanes can also be present as a result of past disinfection.

Sewage has also been analyzed to determine relative rates of use of prescription and illegal drugs among municipal populations.[14] General socioeconomic demographics may be inferred as well.[15]

Health and environmental aspects

All categories of sewage are likely to carry pathogenic organisms that can transmit disease to humans and animals. Sewage also contains organic matter that can cause odor and attract flies.

Sewage contains nutrients that may cause eutrophication of receiving water bodies; and can lead to ecotoxicity.


A medieval waste pipe in Stockholm Old Town formerly deposited sewage on the street to be flushed away by rain.
Sewage canal of a medieval house as depicted in 1447 St. Barbara Altarpiece in the National Museum in Warsaw.

A system of sewer pipes (sewers) collects sewage and takes it for treatment or disposal. The system of sewers is called sewerage or sewerage system (see London sewerage system) in British English and sewage system in American English. Where a main sewerage system has not been provided, sewage may be collected from homes by pipes into septic tanks or cesspits, where it may be treated or collected in vehicles and taken for treatment or disposal. Properly functioning septic tanks require emptying every 2–5 years depending on the load of the system.


Sewage treatment is the process of removing the contaminants from sewage to produce liquid and solid (sludge) suitable for discharge to the environment or for reuse. It is a form of waste management. A septic tank or other on-site wastewater treatment system such as biofilters or constructed wetlands can be used to treat sewage close to where it is created.

Sewage treatment results in sewage sludge which requires sewage sludge treatment before safe disposal or reuse. Under certain circumstances, the treated sewage sludge might be termed "biosolids" and can be used as a fertilizer.

In developed countries sewage collection and treatment is typically subject to local and national regulations and standards.


Raw sewage is also disposed of to rivers, streams, and the sea in many parts of the world. Doing so can lead to serious pollution of the receiving water. This is common in developing countries and may still occur in some developed countries, for various reasons – usually related to costs.

Ships at sea are forbidden from discharging their sewage overboard unless three miles or more from shore.[16]

Reuse of treated or untreated sewage

Sewage can be converted to biogas using anaerobic digestion.[17] Increasingly, agriculture is using untreated wastewater for irrigation. Cities provide lucrative markets for fresh produce, so are attractive to farmers. Because agriculture has to compete for increasingly scarce water resources with industry and municipal users, there is often no alternative for farmers but to use water polluted with urban waste, including sewage, directly to water their crops. There can be significant health hazards related to using water loaded with pathogens in this way, especially if people eat raw vegetables that have been irrigated with the polluted water.

The International Water Management Institute has worked in India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mexico and other countries on various projects aimed at assessing and reducing risks of wastewater irrigation. They advocate a ‘multiple-barrier’ approach to wastewater use, where farmers are encouraged to adopt various risk-reducing behaviours. These include ceasing irrigation a few days before harvesting to allow pathogens to die off in the sunlight, applying water carefully so it does not contaminate leaves likely to be eaten raw, cleaning vegetables with disinfectant or allowing fecal sludge used in farming to dry before being used as a human manure.[18] The World Health Organization has developed guidelines for safe water use.


European Union

Council Directive 91/271/EEC on Urban Wastewater Treatment was adopted on 21 May 1991,[19] amended by the Commission Directive 98/15/EC.[20] Commission Decision 93/481/EEC defines the information that Member States should provide the Commission on the state of implementation of the Directive.[21]


The words "sewage" and "sewer" came from Old French essouier "to drain", which came from Latin exaquāre. Their formal Latin antecedents are exaquāticum and exaquārium.

Both words are descended from Old French assewer, derived from the Latin exaquare, "to drain out (water)".

See also


  1. ^ Corcoran, E.; C. Nellemann; E. Baker; R. Bos; D. Osborn; H. Savelli, eds. (2010). Sick water? The central role of wastewater management in sustainable development. A rapid response assessment (PDF). Arendal, Norway: UNEP/GRID-Arendal. ISBN 978-82-7701-075-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-12-18.
  2. ^ Wastewater engineering: treatment and reuse (4th ed.). Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., McGraw Hill, USA. 2003. p. 1807. ISBN 0-07-112250-8.
  3. ^ Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary (International Edition) New York, 1960, p. 1152.
  4. ^ Flexner, Sturat; Hauck, Leonore, eds. (1987) [1966]. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (Second ed.). New York City: Random House (published 1993). p. 1754.
  5. ^ Neilson, William Allan; Knott, Thomas A., eds. (1934). Webster's new international dictionary of the English language. Second edition unabridged. An entirely new work (Hardocver) (Second ed.). Springfield, Mass: C. & C. Merriam Company. p. 2296.
  6. ^ "sewerage – definition of sewerage in English from the Oxford dictionary". Oxforddictionaries.com. Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2015-09-04.
  7. ^ McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (View excerpt at Answers.com Archived 2009-02-12 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ World Health Organization (2006). Guidelines for the safe use of wastewater, excreta, and greywater. World Health Organization. p. 31. ISBN 9241546859. OCLC 71253096.
  9. ^ Andersson, K., Rosemarin, A., Lamizana, B., Kvarnström, E., McConville, J., Seidu, R., Dickin, S. and Trimmer, C. (2016). Sanitation, Wastewater Management and Sustainability: from Waste Disposal to Resource Recovery Archived 2017-06-01 at the Wayback Machine. Nairobi and Stockholm: United Nations Environment Programme and Stockholm Environment Institute. ISBN 978-92-807-3488-1, p. 56
  10. ^ Naddeo, Vincenzo; Liu, Haizhou (2020). "Editorial Perspectives: 2019 novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2): what is its fate in urban water cycle and how can the water research community respond?". Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology. doi:10.1039/D0EW90015J.
  11. ^ Poliovirus detected from environmental samples in Israel Archived 2013-11-04 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Drug resistant bug review: NDM-1 in New Delhi’s sewage, WHO calls to action, recent outbreaks of antibiotic resistant bacteria Archived 2013-11-05 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Raw Sewage Harbors Diverse Viral Populations Archived 2013-06-07 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ 'Testing the waters': First International conference on drug wastewater analysis Archived 2014-02-09 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Choi, Phil M. (7 October 2019). "Social, demographic, and economic correlates of food and chemical consumption measured by wastewater-based epidemiology". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 116 (43): 21864–21873. doi:10.1073/pnas.1910242116. PMC 6815118. PMID 31591193.
  16. ^ "Wayback Machine" (PDF). 19 August 2018. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-08-19.
  17. ^ Appels, Lise; Baeyens, Jan; Degrève, Jan; Dewil, Raf (2008). "Principles and potential of the anaerobic digestion of waste-activated sludge". Progress in Energy and Combustion Science. 34 (6): 755–781. doi:10.1016/j.pecs.2008.06.002. ISSN 0360-1285.
  18. ^ Wastewater use in agriculture: Not only an issue where water is scarce! Archived 2014-04-09 at the Wayback Machine International Water Management Institute, 2010. Water Issue Brief 4
  19. ^ "EUR-Lex – 31991L0271 – EN – EUR-Lex".
  20. ^ "EUR-Lex – 31998L0015 – EN – EUR-Lex".
  21. ^ "EUR-Lex – 31993D0481 – EN – EUR-Lex".