By Eric Whitley
The production of food and beverage products in the U.S. accounts for around one-third of the total freshwater use of the country. While it is unimaginable to consume so much water just for yourself, industrial and agricultural applications are on a scale of their own. At the rate we are going, water demand is not going to slow down anytime soon. Water supply, on the other hand, is going in the other direction.
Global Water Supply
Our blue planet is facing some challenging times, no thanks to the inevitable effects of climate change, and compounded by the demands of rapid urbanization. The carbon footprint in food production has been a familiar concern in issues of environmental and social awareness. But our water footprint and the stress on our global water supply go unnoticed more easily. Global water usage is estimated to see a 53 percent increase by the year 2030. Without improving water conservation, the risk of shortage and supply insufficiency becomes a real possibility.
Where Does Your Water Go?
The first step towards a sustainable water reduction program is to understand the current water usage of a facility. Think of conducting a water balance to evaluate all the water that comes in and out of your system. The key to a proper audit is to be comprehensive, to account for all possible water flows.
Process operations, such as cooling and cooking, are some of the areas typically listed in a water balance. Other areas to include are utilities, waste flows, and irrigation. In each subprocess, look out for any possible leaks that could throw off your calculations. Leaks, and similar forms of waste, are the top priorities when performing such audits. Similarly, resource-intensive processes that are opportunities for improvement are also a matter of concern.
Filter Out the Problems
After evaluating where your water goes, you will have a better idea of how best to arrest any issues. The next step should then involve eliminating any inefficiencies and extending the utilization of the water resource. Three of the most common opportunities for improvement involve the following:
Improving water conservation is all about minimizing water use, and what better way to lower your consumption than reusing your resources? Recycling is any type of water re-usage, from one process for another useful purpose. A simple yet practical example of recycling water is using water for cooling in several stages of operations. Note that there are potential restrictions with potable water reuse processes, but there are many other available prospects.
Reducing Inefficiencies in CIP
A more specific process of recycling that is prevalent in water systems is known as clean-in-place (CIP). CIP systems aim to make cleaning processes easier and automatable. The downside is that CIP processes are known to produce large amounts of water waste. It all boils down to managing any inefficiencies and ensuring that the system design is optimized. For example, improper pipe sizing of CIP systems can translate to an increase in waste and overconsumption of water.
Water is a resource that is necessary for food production. However, some processes can do without water. There could be a waterless procedure that is a suitable alternative to otherwise water-extensive activities. Water washing, for example, could be eliminated, if not reduced, by dry operations such as vacuuming. Similarly, mechanically cleaning materials could replace the use of high-pressure hoses.
Emerging Technologies And Equipment
Advancements in technology for water conservation are continuing to rise in parallel to more traditional efforts of saving water. Over the past few decades, we have gotten better at figuring out how to improve existing processes. Moreover, we are now also finding relevant applications for previously available technologies.
Reverse Osmosis Process Improvements
Reverse osmosis has been one of the most established processes in treating water to a certain level of quality. While it has proven to work effectively, it has its drawbacks. Reverse osmosis is known to be energy-intensive. It can also produce harmful by-products that can limit its usage. Significant improvements to existing systems aim to address these limitations, from ingenious 3-D printed designs that improve flow to bioprocessing integrations that make better use of by-products.
Another example of advanced technology used for saving water is the use of membrane bioreactor systems. These systems have proven their use in wastewater treatment applications which, in turn, preserves the supply of clean, usable water.
We are living at a time when connectivity is more available than ever. The trend of devices being able to communicate with each other unleashes a whole new world of opportunities. Water conservation processes are starting to see the advantages of smart manufacturing from other industries. Remote monitoring, for example, allows you to deploy several sensors to tell you about your water quality for every step of the process. Collecting comprehensive information about your facility takes you a step closer to data-driven decisions.
Taking a conscious step towards water conservation can sound like a daunting task, especially if your organization is just about to start. Here are a few tips to get things flowing.
Obtain Management Commitment
As with any project, management commitment sets the tone for the rest of your efforts. It always helps to identify a sponsor that would lead the initiative.
Know Your Water Footprint
You can never go wrong with starting from conducting a water balance. Knowing your current state will allow you to identify areas that you can improve upon. It also allows you to establish a baseline and measure progress.
Work on Your Design
There are opportunities, as early as the design phase, to start thinking about water conservation. Choosing equipment, for example, can already give you a headstart with conserving water. The same goes for system design and figuring out the water flow through your system to maximize usage.
Engage Your Staff
The best way to successfully implement an initiative is to get the whole team behind it. Aside from providing the necessary training on standard operating procedures, it also helps to let the team know the purpose of starting such projects.
The push to conserve water is becoming increasingly popular globally, not just because of a short-term craze but because it is simply the right thing to do. Food and beverage manufacturers are some of the primary beneficiaries of the resource. It is only fitting that these same players are at the forefront of promoting ways to save the very resource that sustains the industry and the wider society.
Eric Whitley has 30 years of experience in manufacturing, holding positions such as Total Productive Maintenance Champion for Autoliv ASP, an automotive safety system supplier that specializes in airbags and restraint systems. He is also an expert in lean and smart manufacturing practices and technologies. Over the years, Eric has worked with all sectors of industry including Food, Timber, Construction, Chemical and Automotive to name a few. Currently, he’s a part of the L2L team.