Going back to the 80’s to learn how Severn Trent led the way with nature-based solutions in wastewater treatment 

11th April 2024

The 1980s was the era of excess that brought us big hair, breakdancing, shoulder pads, leg warmers, and cultural phenomenon including who shot JR in Dallas, Neighbours and The Goonies.

Taking a look through the archives of the past 50 years since Severn Trent was formed in April 1974, the end of the 80’s saw a pivotal moment in the region’s water company history as it led the way in introducing nature-based solutions to wastewater treatment - something that was even given the royal seal of approval from Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne. 

You may have heard of your ABCs, but have you heard of RBCs? Severn Trent led the introduction of Rotating Biological Contactors (RBCs) to sewage treatment sites across the Midlands working alongside reed beds at sites, that act like large ponds to absorb nutrients from wastewater to help them grow. But the engineering teams had a lot of hard work ahead of them as at the time, the industry had little confidence in the technology given it was so new and groundbreaking. 

Seeing how much potential they had, at the beginning of the 80s, a Severn Trent engineering team was challenged to find a way to make the RBC and reed bed technology more robust and it gained global recognition. 

Now retired Eric Findlay, from Knowle in Solihull, who had a 22-year career with Severn Trent was the principal engineer on the project, said: “Severn Trent were the only ones investing time and money into these nature-based RBCs and reed beds, I don’t think the rest of the sector believed that they could work. But the things we achieved with that project were absolutely amazing and we were immensely proud of what we did.

“This whole project started as an ask on a Friday afternoon by John Banyard, the then engineering director, to look into RBCs and combine them with reed beds to see what could be done with them and it evolved and became a huge initiative that changed the game on nature-based solutions.”

Rotating Biological Contactors is a biological wastewater treatment system that uses a series of rotating discs to support microbial growth and promote the removal of pollutants from wastewater. Reed beds were connected to the RBCs and were like a large pond which helped to absorb nutrients from wastewater which helped them to grow. 

In the late 80s, a number of Severn Trent wastewater treatment sites had investment, improvements and upgrades and Eric, along with a team including Ben Green, Paul Griffin and other Severn Trent engineering staff took on the challenge to make sure that RBCs combined with reed beds were a viable project and saw them working with Cranfield University School of Mechanical Engineering. 

It became a labour of love for the team, and it paid off as Severn Trent continues to use RBCs combined with reed beds at 163 sites more than 30 years after they were first introduced. Not only that, but the environmental aspects have also been recognised over the years, as the sites had, as intended, become more a haven for wildlife than a vehicle for treating sewage.

One of the pinnacles of the project was when Princess Anne visited to Severn Trent’s Avening site in Gloucestershire. The Princess was given a tour of the site, learned how the process worked and while there, also officially opened the site, which had not long been completed.

Eric said: “The project gained us international acclaim and showcased Severn Trent as a driver of innovation in the water sector. But the visit of Princess Anne to Avening Sewage Treatment Works was the cherry on top of it all.

“Although it was a rush to get everything ready as we only had six days to get the reed beds completed and done in time for the visit, but we got everything sorted and she was very impressed with everything that was being done.” 

Bob Stear, Chief Engineer from Severn Trent, added: “Eric and the team led the way with nature-based solutions which has informed so much work and innovation over the past 30 years. Their perseverance and determination in getting this project off the ground and making it work, has meant that we have been able to make great strides for the future and we cannot thank them enough.”

Working with Cranfield University on mechanical engineering specification, Cranfield’s engineer had industrial experience in rotating machinery as practical engineering experience in rotating machinery was essential.

Eric added: “This turned out to be a major project that was extremely technical, we developed several simple innovations to achieve a consistently clear standard at all rates of flow including storm water and long life. It was very important to get the hydraulic, process parameters and speed of rotation correct, if the process was to be successful – and it was!”

Back in the 80’s the then-named Severn Trent Water Authority was into its second decade as a company after it had being formed from dozens of local water authorities and corporations; inheriting and becoming custodians of some of the most vital bits of infrastructure in the country; and looking ahead to investing in and serving millions over the years to come.