Business finds new ways to save water for the future
- 12 September 2014
- From the section Business
Is there a bigger environmental problem facing the planet than climate change? According to Nestle chairman Peter Brabeck there is.
"I am not saying climate change is not important," he told the Financial Times in July.
"What I am saying is even without climate change we are running out of water and I think this has to become the first priority."
The statistics are certainly shocking.
According to the UN, one in three of the world's population currently lives in water stressed areas and that is set to increase to one in two by 2030.
It could lead to food shortages, disease, even war.
Less talked about, though, is the potential impact on business and the global economy. Water is after all an essential input just like energy.
"From a corporate risk perspective businesses have started asking the question: 'What would happen if we didn't have access to water?'" says Paul O'Callaghan, chief executive of Bluetech Research, a consultancy advising on water technology.
"It could shut down production and that could impact a firm's share price, so it's being taken seriously by investors."
Take me to the river
To bulwark themselves and cut costs, sectors from pulp and paper to oil and gas are turning to technology.
Take Nestle USA's pizza division factory in Little Chute, Wisconsin, which has teamed up with GE Water to reduce its water usage in its cooling towers.
"Industrial cooling water must meet tight specifications, but Little Chute's city water is challenging because of its hardness and alkalinity," says the firm.
"Standard chemical treatments were unable to treat it adequately because high concentrations produced scaling in the cooling towers, which decreased cooling efficiency and required additional maintenance."
But by applying GE's advanced water-treatment chemical technology to the plant's cooling towers, the factory has been able to use re-use its water to a much greater degree - saving some 7.4 million gallons of water and reducing sewer discharges by the same amount.
Treating food and beverage wastewater can still leave an unpleasant by-product called 'sludge'. It costs money to dispose of, not to mention creates greenhouse gases.
But US firm Nutrinsic has come up with a novel solution - turning the nutrients in factory wastewater into quality animal feed.
"The host plant simply has to give us their waste nutrients at no cost, allow us to alter the wastewater treatment conditions according to our protocols and provide a small space for us to construct our 'harvest' system," says chief executive Leo Gingras.
The plant reduces expenses while Nutrinsic benefits financially from sales of the feed.
"The environment also benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions and society benefits from having a new sustainable source of protein for animal feeds," adds Mr Gingras.
Harvest for the world
When it comes to water use agriculture is the elephant in the room, soaking up about 70% of the planet's freshwater.
Farmers can cut consumption massively using a process called "'drip irrigation" - whereby exactly the right amount of water is dispensed to crops via long plastic watering tubes - but it is costly.
However, Driptech, a start-up operating in India, says it has created a high-end system that comes in at around 70% cheaper than comparative technology.
"Most drip systems today are too expensive for the 85% of Indian farmers that cultivate five acres of land or less," says chief operating office Sarah Huber.
"We recently launched the first one-acre all-in-one, off-the-shelf drip irrigation system in India - InstaKit.
"The entire system comes in three small boxes, and can be installed in under three hours by farmers on their own. Being portable, it can be shifted among fields where crop rotation is being practised."
The idea is to use design and materials, to eliminate the need for "the high-powered pumps, expensive filters, and thousands of complicated emitters used in traditional drip irrigation systems".
So-called "precision agriculture" is now enhancing such processes - this makes use of GPS services, sensors, big data and even drones to optimise crop yields.
Take IBM's Deep Thunder system, which provides precision weather forecasting to farmers via their mobile phones.
According to Marty McLendon, chairman of the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, which is trialling the technology: "[It means] we can make proactive irrigation scheduling decisions on the fly."
Turning off the taps
Increasingly firms are managing to avoid water use altogether. Take the field of industrial dyeing, where estimated 100-150 litres of water is needed to process just one kilogramme of textiles.
Thanks to a new dyeing process from the Dutch firm Dyecoo, manufacturers like Nike and Ikea are now able to cut water out of the equation completely.
Dyecoo's system uses highly pressurised CO2 to infuse fabric with saturated colour.
"Afterwards there's no more than 0.02% residual waste and 95% of the CO2 is recycled, to be used again in the same process," says Ineke Kuvener, back office executive at the firm.
Such initiatives not only boost a business's sustainability, but also enhance the reputation of a brand. And ultimately that feeds back to the bottom line.
Bluetech's Paul O'Callaghan notes how Coca Cola has been accused in the past of draining groundwater wells, which has had a negative impact on the company.
"So now when they go into a region like India, they invest in habitat restoration, ensuring the quality of the waterways.
"You think it's not revenue-related but it is, because it also secures their factories' future in that region in the long run."