file under: Chemicals, Food and Beverage, Industrial, Metals and Mining, Oil and Gas, Power, Water

Steps Toward a Lighter Water Footprint

Sustainability is a hot topic for companies and water usage and discharge are important components to overall sustainable operations. For many facility and operations managers, an emerging term to keep in mind is water footprint. Whether manufacturing consumer goods or generating electricity, chances are, water is a part of the process. Exactly how much water is used, and how much is discharged, can significantly affect production costs, compliance, and even public perception.

Sustainability is a hot topic for companies and water usage/discharge is an important component to overall sustainable operations. For many facility and operations managers, an emerging term to keep in mind is water footprint. 

A water footprint is typically determined by comparing water usage with a standard quantity of product (e.g., gallons per ton of food, per automobile, or per kilowatt hour). In order to keep this number as low as possible, businesses are taking a closer look at their operations, and discovering new opportunities for efficient water consumption.

Waste Not, Want Not

Reusing water is an excellent way to reduce a water footprint. Water used in production can be treated and used again in the same process or rerouted to other uses, such as cooling, rinsing or cleaning, or irrigation. Either way, water recycling reduces both water intake and the amount of wastewater discharged by a facility. Frequently, this results in lower overall water management costs.

Closing the Loop

Zero discharge is achieved when an operation purifies and recycles all of its wastewater. By creatively and efficiently reusing water, and applying sophisticated treatment technology, it becomes possible for some companies to operate without releasing any contaminants or water back into the environment via an indirect discharge to a public sewer or directly to the environment (direct discharge). Usually, implementing a zero discharge water management scheme requires a holistic approach, incorporating manufacturing operations and other utility operations as well as wastewater and water treatment systems.

By employing this scheme companies completely eliminate waste and severely reduce overall fresh water consumption. Depending on the industry, the extent of treatment required may necessitate a large capital investment. Completely closing the loop can also be costly in terms of energy, additional operations, and maintenance. While not for every industry, this goal can serve as a testament to an organization's commitment to the environment. Many times, an industry opts for partial reuse unless there are additional underlying market or water resources-driven reasons to commit to zero discharge.

Ensuring Compliance

Whether or not a company aims for zero discharge, zero non-compliance is a must. Many facilities feature water infrastructure that was built to meet prior effluent guidelines or local sewer authority discharge limits and may not be up to today's standards. Water-related regulations can vary greatly by industry and geographic region. In areas of the country where water is a scarce resource, businesses may face tighter government control and pressure from consumers to fine-tune their operations. While small improvements in operations may result in water use reductions of 5 to 10 percent, more substantial system upgrades or replacements may be necessary to keep a company compliant for years to come.

Be Informed

For more information about the water footprint concept, visit the Water Footprint Network. To learn more about water treatment and related regulations, visit EPA’s Effluent Limitation Guidelines website.