Firms scramble to boost water-saving culture

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This article is part of our special report Plastics and PVC.

From pet food manufacturing to wastewater treatment, companies show no lack of imagination when it comes to improving water efficiency at this year's annual Green Week event in Brussels.

The world faces a significant freshwater shortfall within a generation without advances in productivity, whether it involves repairing home leaks or finding ways to slash waste in manufacturing.

That is the assessment of water experts at the McKinsey research firm, which projects a 40% global freshwater shortfall in two decades unless sweeping measures are taken to improve agricultural, industrial and home efficiency.

Driven by rising costs and fears of future shortfalls, some companies are pressing ahead with innovations to improve efficiency.

The world faces a significant freshwater shortfall within a generation without advances in productivity, whether it involves repairing home leaks or finding ways to slash waste in manufacturing.

That is the assessment of water experts at the McKinsey research firm, which projects a 40% global freshwater shortfall in two decades unless sweeping measures are taken to improve agricultural, industrial and home efficiency.

Driven by rising costs and fears of future shortfalls, some companies are pressing ahead with innovations to improve efficiency.

According to a European Commission-backed study (see part 1 and part 2), the EU could improve its water efficiency by nearly 40% with technological improvements alone. 

Companies are also being urged into action by policymakers, who are tempted to regulate water usage by industry and agriculture in the face of growing water scarcity.

Water-efficient pet food

One effort – backed by European Union funding – involves radically reducing waste in the water-intensive process of sterilising petfood. A pilot project of the Mars food and confection company’s petcare division has shown that new techniques in batch sterilisation of food slashes water use.

They company plans to expand methods tested in Germany to plants in Britain, France and Lithuania.

“This involves a big consumption of potable water and of course in Western Europe, this consumption is expensive as well,” Thomas Gaartz, a senior engineer at Mars’ Verden plant in northern Germany, told EURACTIV by telephone.

Thermal sterilisation of petfood containers requires temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Celsius. Traditionally, freshwater was used for each batch and the used liquid discharged into the sewerage system.

Mars’ conservation – or ‘recowater’ technique – uses ultraviolet light to purify wastewater and to return it for use in sterilisation chambers, Gaartz said. Recycling has cut wastewater discharge by 95%, yielding savings in water consumption and treatment of some €300,000 annually at the Verden operation.

The research has been funded by the EU’s Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme, a €200-million 2008-2013 fund to promote technology and efficiency in manufacturing.

Corporate conservation plans

Like Mars, Dow Chemical is tapping its own water treatment and purification technologies to invest in making its chemical, plastics and other operations more resource efficient.

“Sustainability and profitability are not in opposition,” Ilham Kadri, the Dubai-based general manager of advanced materials for Dow, told EURACTIV ahead of a speech during the EU’s Green Week activities in Brussels. “Water management is not only economical, it is about security of supply.”

Dow says it has slashed consumption of public water at one of the US corporation’s largest industrial complexes, at Terneuzen in the Netherlands, by collecting wastewater from nearby communities, treating it and using for manufacturing.

Kadri says other petrochemical companies are interested in the process and Dow is transferring the concept to plants in Spain, China and eventually other areas.

The project – the result of cooperation between the local government and the company – is a model of public-private cooperation that could work elsewhere in Europe, the Dow executive contends.

“It’s Green Week and I will be bringing a blue message” to EU organisers of the annual event, which this year focuses on water conservation, Kadri said. She added that policymakers in Brussels should promote public-private partnerships in conservation, especially in times of tight financing and government austerity.

Water recycling has an added benefit – reduced treatment needs at Terneuzen cut energy use for water purification by 65%, the company says. Similarly, Gaartz said the Mars sterilisation technique has cut energy use through lower demand for wastewater treatment.

Drinks that need less water

Other companies are being driven by concerns about resource security and cost competitiveness to conserve water – from fixing leaky toilets to reusing manufacturing water for cleaning or watering landscape.

Coca-Cola Europe aims to cut water use 20% through technology and conservation measures. A Coke is 96% water, and the company uses 294 million cubic meters of freshwater each year, three times the amount consumed by the city of London, according to the corporation’s environmental responsibility programme.

The soft-drink manufacturer is one of several corporations that have joined the European Water Stewardship Programme, launched in 2010 by the Brussels-based European Water Partnership to promote conservation and efficiency.

The McKinsey study has warned that at current consumption levels, agricultural demand alone could exceed available sources of sustainable ground and surface supplies by 2030, a period coinciding with rising food and domestic demand. Today’s emerging markets and developing countries face the largest gap between human needs and available water.

The study – 'Charting our water future' – was released last year during Green Week in Brussels. Addressing water gaps is also part of this year’s Green Week which ends on Friday.

McKinsey & Company research shows that at current rates of growth, global freshwater withdrawal will hit 6.9 trillion cubic meters (tcm) by 2030, while the sustainable supply will be 4.2 tcm, slightly less than today’s level.

Agricultural water use will grow from 3.1 to 4.5 tcm, while industrial demand will nearly double to 1.5 billion cubic meters (bcm). Domestic consumption will grow to 900 billion bcm from 600 bcm today.

Addressing water gaps will require substantial investment in productivity - from recycling wastewater to more efficient irrigation, to an end for market-distorting water subsidies for farmers and large-scale industrial users.

The recommendations were made during a discussion on resource efficiency as part of the European Commission’s Green Week in 2011. This year’s event focuses on water conservation.

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