Saving Every Last Drop
With drought conditions and water restructions set to impact businesses across the US, some businesses are acting now to reduce their water risks, Sarah Fister Gale investigates
A large-scale water recycling system, now in its final stages of installation, will direct all water used in the plant through a membrane bioreactor filter system to treat it to drinking-quality standards before funneling it back into the facility for reuse. When fully operational at the end of 2009, the Texas-based global snack food company expects to recycle 85 per cent to 90 per cent of the water used in the plant.
"As an agro-based business, we realised a long time ago that water is critical to our operations," says Al Halvorsen, Frito Lay's director of environmental sustainability.
Drought conditions and impending water regulations are spurring smart and environmentally-savvy companies like Frito Lay to focus their sustainability efforts on conserving and managing a precious resource crucial for their long-term viability. Experts say conserving water is moving from noble gesture to shrewd business decision because of the sour economy and the likelihood of the price rising over the next decade to reflect its true cost. [For more on the challenges facing companies in measuring and reducing water use, see Water Basics: You Can't Manage What You Don't Measure, by Andrew Collier and Andrew Glantz.]
"Water upgrades used to be "good to have" but didn't offer a major return on investment," says Eric Meliton, an environmental technology research analyst at Frost and Sullivan. "But now with the economy, companies see water reduction projects as good investments."
Dubbed "Net Zero", Frito Lay's recycling system is one of dozens of projects implemented across the business that have reduced water use 40 per cent below 1999 levels.
The Net Zero project is the first of its kind for Frito Lay, and while it's a capital intensive effort with a long return on investment, it's critical to the company's future, says Halvorsen. "When water becomes scarce our ability to produce products will come into play," he points out. "We want to have technology developed and scaled by that time so we won't need to move production to follow the water. This technology could potentially be used anywhere in the world."
Although Net Zero is an impressive display of what innovative companies can do to conserve water, Halvorsen notes that most of the water management projects Frito-Lay has under development are on a smaller scale. From replacing leaky faucets and shutting off hoses and taps, to capturing and recycling steam off of potato fryers, the water management projects run the gamut from behaviour modification to innovative facility upgrades.
"We focus just as much on people as technology," he says, noting that the water savings the company has achieved can be attributed equally to both. " Technology can solve a lot of problems, but you also have to embed new behaviour into the mindset and culture of the company. Otherwise you will hit a wall."
Frito Lay is far from alone. In the face of regional droughts and potential water use restrictions, water management has become a growing concern for water intensive businesses, regardless of their location, says Meliton of Frost and Sullivan.
"States that are experiencing shortages, like Arizona and California, will see a more immediate impact but water management is going to be an issue for all regions," he says.
Fortunately, reducing water use offers a strong business case as the cost of water rises and operating budgets continue to shrink. Halvorsen estimates Frito Lay would have spent $60 million more in 2008 on energy and water use if it hadn't implemented these programs.
"What makes these projects sustainable is that alignment between environmental and business priorities," he says.
For companies that haven't yet experienced the business benefits of water management projects, Meliton predicts the price of water will continue to increase over the next 10 to 15 years to more accurately reflect its true cost, which will drive more businesses to focus on water management.
"These can be capital-intensive projects, which is a drawback," he admits. " But it's a good time to begin assessing water usage so you have a baseline and can identify opportunities for reductions."
Avon Comes Calling for Water Savings
Beauty supply company Avon has tracked water usage across its global operations for more than a decade, and like Frito-Lay, has also seen both environmental and business benefits.
"Water efficiency is critical to our environmental policy, but it also makes good business sense," says Mike Hercek, senior manager of sustainability for the New York-based company.
The company set a goal in 2005 to reduce water usage 10 per cent in three years using 2004 water consumption as a baseline. The company surpassed that goal in 2007, and Hercek believes 2008 data will show an overall 15 per cent improvement over 2004.
Avon focuses its biggest water reduction efforts on two areas: its manufacturing operations, which represent the company's greatest consumption, and human use. The projects, being implemented across the company in every region, focus on removing unnecessary water from processes and taking advantage of rainwater harvesting for plumbing and landscape applications.
"Rainwater harvesting is a huge opportunity, particularly for new construction," Hercek says.
The company's newly built Zanesville, Ohio plant, for example, has a built-in rainwater capture system that reduced its consumption of freshwater by 40 to 50 per cent, compared to similar facilities without rainwater harvesting. The rainwater is diverted to storage tanks and then piped into the plumbing system for use in toilets, landscaping and other non-potable gray water applications.
Innovative technology applications are also reducing the company's reliance on water in several facilities, such as its Morton Grove, Illinois, manufacturing lab, where using variable speed drives in cooling towers cut water consumption by 19m gallons in 2008.
Similarly, the company's Springdale, Ohio, site implemented waterless vacuum pumps that save 16m gallons of water annually. "That's enough to fill 24 Olympic sized pools," Hercek notes.
The company has also embraced much smaller measures across the organisation, such as installing low flow showers and toilets, and designing more efficient cleaning processes. "Choosing the right projects is one of our challenges," says Hercek, who notes that the bigger technology upgrades can be a tough sell in this economy. "The payback for water savings with big equipment can be pretty long, but we try hard to make the payback picture more attractive."
GE: ecomagination at Work
Proving the financial payoff is a big part of getting the buy-in for major water management projects, according to Kris Morico, global leader for General Electric's water program. The only way to do that is through measurement, she says.
"Measuring is critical," she advises. "You have to have good data to establish goals."
Since 2006 her group has collected detailed water-consumption data across the company for potable water, process water, sanitation, cleaning and other fresh water usage. That data was used to establish a baseline and set the goal of reducing water consumption by 20 per cent across the entire company by 2012.
"If you don't have a way to monitor returns, you are just spending money and there is no way to prove results," warns Meliton, of Frost and Sullivan.
Achieving verifiable success in GE's water management campaign goes beyond wanting to meet internal expectations. It also has a portfolio of water recycling and reuse technologies as part of its ecomagination initiative that are aimed at global customers concerned about their own water issues.
"We are using our own technology internally," says Morico, "so that we can leverage our successes to our customers."
Core to GE's water management approach is establishing teams of employees within facilities and business units who will champion the cause, monitor water use, and zero in on the best opportunities for improvement. A big part of the early efforts have focused on behaviour modification.
"When you look at a company the size of GE, every leaky faucet or hose that gets shut off results in appreciable reductions," Morico points out. "Just the visibility of the goal draws more attention to water use and it gets our folks thinking about how they use water."
GE is also in various stages of implementing technology solutions to reduce use, including tools to enhance cycle times in cooling tower applications, and membrane treatment systems for wastewater recycling.
"In this day and age, with water scarcity around the world, we have to think about water use in terms of future generations," says Morico. "It may take time to implement but doing nothing is not an option. Water management is an evolving trend that will eventually take on a life of its own."
This article first appeared at Greenbiz.com