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The circular economy of the water cycle

A new collaboration seeks to combine circular principles with water management best practices.

The world runs on water. Unfortunately, due to the linear remove-use-dispose system and natural depletion of water, water crises are happening all over the globe. The reality is that we have less and less potable, fresh water on earth every day, and yet water is critical to the way businesses, governments, and human beings operate. If water use continues down this path, by 2030 demand for freshwater will exceed viable resources by 40%. This isn’t even including the looming threat of climate change, which is slated to increase pollutants and further deplete the quality and amount of available freshwater resources around the globe.

But there is a solution: circular water management.

A circular economy seeks to redefine growth, underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources. The circular model is based on three principles:

  • Designing out waste and pollution,
  • Keeping products and materials in use, and
  • Regenerating natural systems.

Applying circular economy principles to water management is an important step in mitigating and preventing a global water crisis. Instead of endlessly using and disposing of water, imagine a world where water is instead managed in loops and maintained at its highest possible intrinsic value. The time is now for companies, governments and consumers to demand changes in the way we all approach and manage water. Some of the exciting benefits of applying CE principles to water management include wastewater treatment plants that are profit centers rather than cost centers, waterless dyeing in textiles and direct dry cooling in the power sector.

By establishing a common understanding of circular economy principles and how they can be applied to water management, it is possible to shorten the distance between where we are today and where we hope to be, or rather need to be. In order to facilitate this cooperation, a white paper titled Water and the Circular Economy was created in collaboration with three organizations: Antea Group, a global environment, health, safety, and sustainability consulting firm; ARUP, a multinational engineering, design, planning, and project management firm; and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit that works with businesses, governments, and academia to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

There can be a disconnect between water practitioners and circular economy practitioners — their training and backgrounds vary, and oftentimes, they have completely different ways of saying the same thing.
There can be a disconnect between water practitioners and circular economy practitioners — their training and backgrounds vary, and oftentimes, they have completely different ways of saying the same thing. To bridge this gap, we explored foundational concepts and the creation of a common language — a vocabulary that both kinds of practitioners can use — focused on water systems and industrial sectors. This common language enables more efficient conversations, which in turn accelerates the pace of much-needed collaborations.

Through researching and analyzing data from industry, government, and other users of water, we found that impact potentials vary drastically due to several variables, including location, climate, and type of city development. This confirms a philosophy that many water and circular economy practitioners have deliberated on—understanding local context is key to unlocking a more circular water system.

Current projections indicate that the world population will increase to 9.1 billion by 2050, with 60% of the population living in cities or towns. Urban water systems are complex, involving water use in energy, the general population, food, nearby environments, and industry. Between growing food locally, utilizing sludge from wastewater treatment plants to generate renewable energy, and implementing systems to reduce and reuse withdrawn freshwater, we see several possibilities for bringing separate pieces of the municipal water system management puzzle together. There are several other findings in the paper related to urban water management, and we believe that tackling this complex system first paves the way to create circular systems elsewhere.

The concepts have been peer reviewed and accepted by a working group of professionals from industry, academia and water utilities. Phase 2 of the project will collect wide-ranging case studies that exemplify both water management and circular economy principles in order to create a framework identifying the value proposition between water and other systems.

So, how can organizations address circular water management in their own sphere of control and kickstart their circular systems thinking?
Mapping circular economy principles to water is no small feat. To fully address the breadth and complexity of this challenge, we went through four steps: first, we looked at the circular economy principles through a water lens, examining how the principles relate to water systems and long-established guiding principles of sustainable water management. From there, we focused on translating value and establishing a common understanding of how collective expertise in each discipline can be mutually supportive. Then we connected with a diverse group of stakeholders, from water and wastewater treatment companies to members of the food and beverage industry, technology, academia and government, and others to help us shape the framework. Lastly, we envisioned future tools that could help organizations better realize the benefits of circular, transformative change in water management.

So, how can organizations address circular water management in their own sphere of control and kickstart their circular systems thinking? A vital first step is to analyze the current state of water as a system at the organization. They must also address the organization’s place in the projected global and local demands for water, looking to ecosystems, nearby water basins, and industry for deeper insights into their place in the global water system. Seeking to avoid or reduce use, reuse, recycle and replenish water are also important steps, alongside looking for collaborative opportunities with local or regional stakeholders to do the same.

Addressing how water interacts with all levels of society and business is only the first step. Going beyond linear consumption and creating a shift that seeks value from the wider system rather than the fixed point at which consumption happens will allow the functional requirements of water to be met while also creating something entirely new: value from resource efficiency.

Creating this value is no longer a nice-to-have or a far-off dream. For many around the world, implementing circular economy principles is a necessity. The groundwork is here, and now it’s time for mapping the interactions of the water cycle, how it is used, and where within the river basin and urban water cycles value can be extracted and new enterprises established.

To learn more about the future of and business case for circular water management, read the complete white paper Water and the Circular Economy here. Organizations interested in submitting case studies for consideration can send an inquiry here.

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