3 ways for companies to protect water resources and save money
As one of the worst U.S. droughts since the 1950s continues to batter farms and the economy, recent reports deliver a silver lining: As water gains value, those who conserve it, keep it clean, and re-use it stand to profit. Yes, there are likely to be more water shortages as climate change and overpopulation intensify, but the slightly less bad news is that we currently waste so much water that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit.
The Carbon Disclosure Project and General Electric both released reports on water this week. While the focus of the reports varied—CDP looked at how many companies are tracking, reporting and doing something about their impact on water while GE surveyed the general public to gauge consumer attitudes about water usage—the conclusions were roughly the same: Everyone knows we need to do something about water consumption, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so profitably. Those opportunities break down generally into three categories: reducing usage, reusing water and improving infrastructure.
The CDP’s Global Water Report-- compiled from information received from 470 investors representing $50 trillion in assets, and 318 companies listed on the FTSE Global Equity Index Series (Global 500) that operate in sectors which are water-intensive or exposed to water-related risks—cited a general lack of movement on water from the world’s 500 largest companies.
Yet water was also identified as a strategic opportunity to improve financial and brand performance, with 71 percent of respondents reporting a total of 319 related opportunities such as the sale of new products or services. According to CDP’s Karina de Souza, 25 percent of those opportunities were related to cost savings as a result of water efficiency.
De Souza cites Cisco Systems as an example. The company worked with its printed circuit board assembly partners to reduce water use in processes for Cisco products. “Up to 20 million gallons of water were being used each year to wash their printed circuit boards after they were soldered,” de Souza says. “By implementing a new soldering practice, the wash stage of the process became unnecessary. This led to a significant reduction in the amount of wastewater produced requiring treatment and disposal. The result is less water use and increased assembly efficiency.” Cisco Systems also saves over $1 million per year through the practice.
In some cases companies have seized on the public’s interest in conserving water and released new products to help them do just that. “Unilever set a target to reduce water in their consumer facing products—their Comfort one-rinse, for example, saves 30 liters of water per wash,” de Souza says. “These products are now used in 12.5 million households worldwide, delivering a 60 percent increase on 2010 sales figures.”
“From our perspective, one of the biggest opportunities is to reuse more water,” says Jon Freedman, Global Government Relations leader for GE Water & Process Technologies. “In the next year or two, 36 states will experience some degree of scarcity, and yet the U.S. is only reusing six to eight percent of wastewater. We’re seeing tremendous growth in reuse, both on the industrial and municipal side. While municipal reuse continues to grow, industrial reuse is increasingly catching on. For example, in California, total reuse grew about 30 percent over the past ten years, but industrial reuse grew 100 percent during the same timeframe. In addition, industrial reuse grew 32 percent in Florida between 2010 and 2011.”
Freedman says the economics around investing in water treatment and re-use are increasingly making sense, and that the inevitable higher water prices we’re likely to see as water continues to be scarce will push many new projects across the starting line. “The technologies for reuse already exist today,” he says. “Membrane-driven systems can achieve 70 to 85 percent recovery of water, while evaporative technologies can increase recovery to 99 percent. Our challenge – and we’re working very hard on it – is to continually bring down the energy consumption and overall cost of these technologies.”
As the cost of water goes up and the cost of water-reuse technology comes down, Freedman says businesses are also becoming more aware of the need to “water-proof” their businesses. “They want to guarantee a constant supply of water for their business needs, and they can do that by using treated wastewater, whether their own wastewater or wastewater from a nearby municipality,” he says. “By treating the wastewater to their specific needs, the businesses are both guaranteeing the quantity and quality of a mission critical resource.”
Reuse also means using essentially toilet water for industrial uses, something Americans have traditionally found too gross to get behind. According to GE’s survey, however, that attitude is shifting. The company found that 66 percent of Americans support water recycling across the board, while 8 in 10 support “toilet-to-turf” reuse for business uses such as power generation, landscaping, manufacturing, toilet-flushing, car washing and agricultural irrigation.
According to a recent Ceres report, the U.S. loses 6 billion gallons of treated water–14 percent of the country’s daily water usage–per day due to leaky pipes. Depending on who you believe, there’s anywhere from $600 billion to $2.5 trillion needed to update U.S. infrastructure over the next 20 years. The U.S. Conference of Mayors put the number even higher, at between $3 trillion and $5 trillion, but note that every dollar spent improving infrastructure will deliver $9 back to the economy. The only thing stopping such investments to date has been the lack of political will behind doing mundane things like fixing or replacing pipes. But with drought raising the public’s awareness of water issues, that might change.
According to Dr. Emma Stewart, industry sustainability solutions lead at Autodesk and appointed Cabinet Member of the Low Carbon Taskforce of the World Economic Forum, fixing infrastructure isn’t just about sorting out leaky pipes, but about re-thinking water distribution and treatment systems writ large.
“One thing we [at Autodesk] are working on is whether we can borrow more from natural systems,” Stewart says. “Like the way soil filters water, or like the way topography slows water down. Can we introduce those natural best practices into the way civil engineers think? Rather than right angles and pipe and increased water treatment capacity, can we almost make it a little dirtier and more complicated by introducing things like green roofs and bioswails so that water slows down, cleans up, and more of it makes it to the aquifer?”