The ongoing drought in Southern California rages on, leaving homeowners with shorter showers, drier lawns, and a more mindful attitude regarding water use. But the drought—and subsequent legislation—also has impacted the manufacturers that call this region home, and some are stepping up to reduce their water use and improve the efficiency of their processes.
Styrotek Inc., located in Delano, Calif., is one such manufacturer. Founded in 1972, the company makes expanded polystyrene products for the grape industry. The material protects the delicate grapes from vibrations during transport. It also is part of a cold chain process, so by lowering the temperature and keeping the grapes packaged in the foam, their lives can be extended by up to 120 days.
To create the polystyrene packaging, chemical resin is put into the production process and expanded using steam, electricity, and air pressure. The use of steam makes water an important element of the manufacturing process.
A series of filters are working to improve water quality and efficiency at the manufacturing facility.
The facility had drawn water from a local canal for its production process since the company’s inception. But in 2014, California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) changed the way the facility is allowed to use water. After the SGMA went into effect, the facility’s operators turned off the old water supply and turned on the connection to an old well, which produced water of a much lower quality than the previous water supply. This was detrimental to production.
“I was brought in to basically make sure the company survived,” said Richard Lindenmuth, who joined Styrotek as president and CEO after the water supply switch had been made. “When I came in, there were three employees that were showing up to work. There was no production. The boilers were down. The water waste was pretty clear.”
The poor-quality well water damaged the production process, and the boiler water that was rejected was sent to evaporate in dry ponds. According to Lindenmuth, the company was losing 35,000 gal of water per day to the air.
Lindenmuth’s background in ranching and irrigation helped inform him of the necessary next steps. He knew the first order of business was to install a system that could treat the water to the high standards the production equipment was used to. He gathered a team of six employees to help put a plan into action before the next grape harvest.
Selecting the right members of the team was vital in making the plan a reality.
“The process was really akin to special operations in the military. Just because you have an officers rank or something like that doesn’t mean you lead a mission,” Lindenmuth said. “You lead a mission because you have experience, you speak the language, you know the geography.”
Similarly, Lindenmuth said, he was the appointed leader of this sustainability team, but he looked for a group of employees with the expertise needed to help make the necessary changes in production. He also looked for a positive attitude.
“If you have people who don’t believe it can be done, then they’re right from their perspective,” he said. “It was really a small team, and then we selected some outside experts who had some resources and things that they could bring to the table right now.”
These outside experts included a 40-year veteran of the expanded polystyrene industry and a Tennessee company that was able to provide a filtration system on a flatbed truck.
The company installed a multimedia filtration system with reverse osmosis (RO) to filter total dissolved solids from the source water. A water softener was installed for added boiler protection. Through this efficient process, the facility was able to reduce its water use from 20 million gal per year to 18 million gal per year, with an ultimate goal of 12 million gal annually.
After the treatment system was installed, the team looked at its long-term sustainability goals. The SGMA requires governments and water agencies of high- and medium-priority groundwater basins to develop sustainability plans that reduce dependence on groundwater by 2020; plans must be put into action by either 2040 or 2042, depending on the state of the basin.
Most recently, the facility installed a clarification process to help provide recycled water to the facility. Water from the factory is sent to a clarifier where heavy particles drop to the bottom. Sand filters and the RO system treat the water for recycling.
“We’re in the process of putting [water] through the sand filters, running it for several months, making sure that we have taken all of the defects or potential issues out of that process and then our next step would be to start recycling the water that comes out of the factory,” Lindenmuth said. It is expected to be operating as part of the production process by the end of 2018.
As part of a longer-term plan, the facility is exploring the installation of chillers to prevent additional water waste through the building’s cooling towers.
“We have cooling towers, which take the steam and reduce it back to water,” Lindenmuth said. “I didn’t even have a clue when I came in here, our cooling towers basically evaporate 65,000 gal of water per day (gpd). That’s not a waste in terms of our process, but it certainly is water that is not being put to good use.” Adding chillers could reduce this amount to 6,000 gpd.
Lindenmuth sees Styrotek’s initiatives as “pioneering” in the ways of water conservation in manufacturing—even though the technologies themselves are staples in water treatment.
“These chemicals and processes have been used for other things and have been around for quite some time, so it’s not necessarily new technology,” he said, “but the packaging and the putting it all together meets the objectives that we set. It’s something that a little bit more unique than we’ve been able to find being done elsewhere.”
A reverse osmosis system helps treat the well water coming into the facility.
As with any project of this size, Lindmuth and his team have learned some lessons along the way.
“We make mistakes, but I guess I’ve learned over the years [that] mistakes are an important part of moving forward and doing the right thing,” he said. “Also, in the way I form teams, we don’t have blame. Why blame somebody were all on this while working as a team?”
The team, he said, extends beyond those recruited to help put this particular initiative in place, to those in the government working to reduce overall water use, and to the farmers and other community members who ultimately will benefit from this facility’s water conservation.
California’s legislation is not the only reason Styrotek is exploring these water-saving initiatives. Lindenmuth recognizes their value from both business and stewardship standpoints.
“We’d like to be in business for long-term, so it’s pretty smart from a business perspective,” he said. “Other than a business perspective, water is becoming an issue all over the U.S. We need to—all of us—be very concerned about how we use it what we do with it and how to best take care of one of our resources.”
Construction continues at the Delano, Calif., facility.