How water conservation has evolved
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.
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