Feb 01, 2021

From Ambition to Action: How Water Conservation Has Evolved

How water conservation has evolved

storm water

Not long ago, water was viewed as a nearly free, uncontrollable cost with an endless supply. Many manufacturing operations did not question their water bills; they simply paid them like an unavoidable tax. The only time a water-related issue left the maintenance department was when it compromised equipment longevity and/or caused production downtime.

For a typical manufacturing plant, water accounts for less than 1% of the total cost of operation. However, when a facility runs out of it, the true cost of water is quickly understood.

In 2009, Ecolab assembled a global team to perform in-depth audits of customer facilities around the world. The goal was mutually beneficial: to deepen our understanding of customer goals, gaps and challenges so we could develop new solutions to help reduce their water dependency. In the last 11 years, we have completed more than 500 such evaluations (known as “Total Plant Assessments”) in 45 countries, spanning virtually every manufacturing segment with an emphasis on the food and beverage industry.

To date, the team has identified more than 10,000 individual water-saving projects with the potential to reduce water usage at these locations by 10 to 70%. We have compiled a wealth of data regarding industry norms and challenges and we have documented many segment-specific best practices, too.

Ambition vs. Ability

While some companies are quite progressive in their water-savings efforts, others remain in the early stages. Ecolab reports 75% of its customer base now has documented water-saving goals, a five-fold increase from 10 years ago. This trend started primarily in Latin America and Europe, and has spread broadly as water availability challenges now affect virtually every region.

In contrast, 85% of those companies lack the tools and resources needed to achieve their publicly stated goals. While water remains relatively inexpensive (estimated at $6.00/1,000 gallons on average in the U.S.), investment in water savings can seem unattractive and payback can seem tenuous. That is, until a company faces a compelling event that affects production or the ability to expand.

Water Stress is the Cost for Economic Success

In the 1930s, a typical family in rural America consumed 5 to 10 gallons of water per day. Today, the same family consumes, on average, 1,000 gallons per day per person, including all uses outside the home — production of the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the electricity to power our smartphones. By 2030, if nothing changes, global demand for water will outpace supply by 40%.

If a hose is left running in Wisconsin, it does not directly impact a farmer in California or Southeast Asia. Or does it? If you buy a bottle of wine from Napa Valley and ship it to the Great Lakes, you might as well ship two 55-gallon drums of water with it because that is how much water was used in the growing and making of that one bottle. Love coffee? The cup you enjoyed this morning from Ethiopia took 80 gallons of water from a stressed region.

As the global population increases and third-world nations modernize, demand for manufactured products will continue to surge. This is great for industry but not for water supply.

Social License to Operate

The community, with heightened awareness of sustainability and corporate responsibility, has a role to play in driving industrial water conservation. To ensure a facility can meet current and future production demands, plant managers are increasingly looking for a social license to operate (SLO). While not a formal contract, SLO refers to the ongoing acceptance of a plant’s operating practices and procedures by its employees, stakeholders, customers and the general public. Interest in SLO is rooted in a company’s concern for its triple bottom line: a focus on people, business and the environment. 

More than ever, Ecolab sees enterprise customers take a keen interest in not only water-stressed regions but across the entire platform. You cannot earn an SLO by embracing some situations and forgetting about others. You are a poor corporate citizen in Peoria, Illinois, if you are a bad one in Peru, regardless of what you do in Peoria.

Visibility Meets Accountability

Most manufacturers want to take action, but do not know where to start. Most industries have KPIs around water consumption on a per-production-unit basis, but these metrics are constantly being challenged. In the brewing segment, 5:1 used to be a great water ratio. Today, these plants strive for 2:1. For fluid milk plants, a 3:1 ratio has been replaced by a <1:1 target. In poultry processing, 6:1 was the standard; today, it is <3:1. How can they get there? With better visibility, deeper insights and proven benchmarks.

Since inception of the Total Plant Assessment (TPA) program, Ecolab has fostered the value of metering and monitoring results. Simply put, you cannot save what you can’t measure. During a TPA, the Ecolab team uses plant-provided information in coordination with a robust and detailed modeling approach to develop a very precise view of current water balance. This enables the team to compare water usage in specific circuits, determine the size of the opportunity and provide an analysis of industry best practices.

A TPA provides a snapshot, like detailed blood work during an annual physical. However, once the team leaves the site, it is hard to know how the improvements have made a difference and whether the gains are holding. 

It is one thing to know your plant is operating at a 4.6:1 water ratio but quite another to understand how each major circuit is contributing and if a circuit is operating above or below target. Without that granular visibility, any fix is hopeful at best and temporary at worst. Deep, real-time insights give you the power to know if your 4.6 could really be a 3.4 and how you can get there.

To address this need, Ecolab recently launched a new digital service: Water Flow Intelligence (WFI). WFI enables companies to view water consumption in real time at the enterprise, plant and asset levels. This happens through a combination of strategic circuit metering, determined in part by our plant-auditing experience and advanced performance insights supported 24/7/365 by Ecolab engineers. The program aggregates these inputs to help identify water-saving opportunities, quantify the improvements and verify that gains are being maintained.

For a balanced mix of proactive and reactive analysis, WFI can used to determine enterprise-wide benchmarks and compare your usage against industry norms. The program closes the visibility gap, allowing an enterprise to take swift action toward their water conservation targets and show clear results.

When you can see your water use clearly and in real time, it is no longer abstract or taken for granted. Instead, it is a true asset to be thoughtfully managed. With visibility comes control; your water-use destiny is in your hands. You gain the ability to show your brand in alignment with good water stewardship rather than reckless consumption. When you can see water, you can see its impact on an operation, so it is no longer a tiny cost but the lifeblood of an operation.

The Water Awareness Spectrum: Where Do You See Your Organization?

  • Water is a cost: “We are interested in reducing water usage when it saves us money. These projects are difficult to justify because the price of water is cheap. Managers have cost KPIs.”
  • Water has value: “We have plant and/or enterprise sustainability goals, but they are arbitrary. Emphasis is placed on water, but water projects are still difficult to justify because water is cheap. Managers are given water KPIs. Business may be reporting water KPIs externally, but it is on the back page.”
  • Water is a crisis: “We have a compelling event and we are reacting to it. Lack of water has created stoppage or a bottleneck. Water is still cheap, but we need to do something fast. The crisis can be viewed at one location but shared equally across an enterprise. Managers are paid to keep the plant running and this is demanding action.”
  • Water stewardship: “Our plant and enterprise have specific water targets. Competition takes place among facilities to be the best. Plants wish to follow industry best practices and redefine KPIs and norms. They are more willing to share across an industry to help their peers because the industry may be under pressure. Plant managers have very specific water KPIs. Investments are moved closer to the top of the list. Our plant is looking for a license to operate and we are targeting water neutrality.”
  • Water dominance: “Our plant has achieved its license to operate and has achieved or is close to achieving a social contract to deliver a triple bottom line. Water is treated as a top priority and managers have KPIs to support equally weighted triple bottom lines. Water focus is on page one; it is on the front cover of our annual report. Other organizations look to us for leadership in this area. But our success is not an end-point, but rather, continuous improvement. We are not just water-neutral; we are water-positive. We return more fresh and safe water back to the community than we are responsible for consuming. Our water ratio is a negative number.”

 

About the author

Blake Schomas is director of technical consulting for the Food & Beverage and Manufacturing, North America group at Nalco Water, An Ecolab Company. Schomas can be reached at [email protected].

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