Companies dive into innovation to dilute their water footprint


To produce a 250 milliliter cane of beer, 74 liters of water are needed, for a glass of wine 109, for a cup of coffee 132, for a glass of milk 255 and for a Margarita pizza 1,259. And so we could continue with an extensive list of goods and services. For example, a cotton T-shirt carries about 2,500 liters and a pair of jeans 8,000. It is quantified up to one liter of bioethanol, a renewable fuel, which requires 2,017 liters of this precious tasteless, odorless and colorless liquid. The figures come from the water footprint calculator devised by Professor Arjen Hoekstra (from the University of Twente, the Netherlands, and the creator of this concept) and Michiel van Heek

(from Water Footprint Network, an international community that works for the sustainability of water resources). It is a new environmental indicator that since 2002 has appealed to the conscience of consumers and companies in order to achieve a more sustainable and efficient use of water, a limited and scarce resource in many areas of the planet.

Reducing water consumption is a challenge that various companies (especially food, beverages and textiles) have been pursuing for years within their corporate social responsibility strategy (there are no regulations that oblige them to do so). For example, Coca-Cola, Mahou San Miguel, Inditex, C&A, Nestlé … have been working on it for a long time. In fact, a recent AECOC report indicates that 69.8% of mass consumption companies had implemented strategies to reduce their water use. Precisely, «the most water-intensive companies are those in the food and beverage sector, and at the same time they are the most aware of their water footprint because it is part of their business. It is a risk for them to lose this resource ”, he estimates. Sofia Tirado, researcher at the Aquae Chair in Water Economics.

What is the water footprint?

The water footprint is a broader concept than reducing the water we use. It is an environmental indicator that measures the volume of fresh water used and contaminated throughout the entire production chain of a consumer good or service. «It involves the entire water cycle for the production of a product. A hamburger requires 2,400 liters. It is its water footprint, which goes back to the water necessary to grow the food that the cow eats, the use of fertilizers for cultivation, the preparation and processing of the hamburger, its transport …. Or the water footprint of a jeans would range from growing cotton to when, in the end, it ends up in a landfill ”, bill Jose Luis Canga, Huella Hídrica advisor to CGB consultores and Abaleo.

Griculture consumes 70% of the planet’s water resources

It is estimated that agriculture consumes 70% of the world’s water resources, industry 20% and households 10%. Hence, the agri-food and beverage industries are the sectors with the largest water footprint. Serve one piece of information: «An average Spaniard has a daily water footprint of 3,496 liters, of which 3,192 is water consumed to produce food that we ingest, “he says Yago Lorenzo, technical manager of the Sustainability Area of ​​Cetaqua (Water Technology Center).

But water is needed in many other production processes: for textiles, paper, plastics, building materials, even for
automobiles
and in semiconductor manufacturing … The latest CDP-Water Watch Water Impact Index revealed that textiles, fossil fuels and financial services were among 200 industries with the highest water consumption.

Advantage

Knowing the water footprint in an industrial process and acting to reduce its impact not only contributes to the fight against climate change. It brings other advantages. “By reducing water consumption there are economic savings, improving the corporate reputation and the positioning of the company, which also obtains external recognition for taking voluntary actions to reduce the impact on water resources. It attracts investors and clients who are aware of climate change ”, he considers Patricia Gomez, Ecoterrae project consultant.

“By reducing water consumption, there are economic savings”

And in Spain, acting on the water footprint and managing water “is of vital importance,” says Lorenzo. “We are a country – he continues – with a large part of the territory under climatic conditions that produce a water deficit. Secondly,
we have a primary and agricultural sector of great importance,
which aggravates the deficit in some basins ”.

And what are our companies doing with their water footprint? Experts agree: there are still few who calculate the water cycle throughout the value chain of their product. Nevertheless, «In recent years, interest has increased and more and more organizations are beginning to manage their water footprint as one more indicator within the organization, “says Lorenzo. Proof of this is that EsAgua has been established, a network of 30 Spanish companies committed to the water footprint.

Pumping station that returns water to the copper production process in the Riotinto mine
Pumping station that returns water to the copper production process in the Riotinto mine

For this, some improve and introduce changes in their production processes, “reduce the risk in their operations, incorporate technological innovations, such as digitization of cultivation; or they purify their water and reuse it in agriculture or to irrigate parks or, again, in the process itself; others compensate their water footprint with actions to improve ecosystems, ”explains Sofía Tirado. “The water footprint has to be worked on throughout the value chain, also with more sustainable suppliers, with waste management …”, explains Lorenzo.

Examples

An example is the mining company Atalaya Mining, which operates the Riotinto mine (Huelva) and that it analyzed its water footprint between 2016 and 2019. “We need water for the copper concentrate production process,” he explains Emilio Sanjuan, responsible for the Environment of this company. Once its water footprint has been calculated, “we have improved the processes and optimized all the equipment. This results in lower consumption per ton of copper produced. In addition, we manage the water circuit, in such a way that of the total water consumption, more than 80% is recirculated water. In other words, we reuse our water and do not dump it. We have a zero discharge environmental policy, ”says Sanjuan.

Leak prelocator equipment from the company Emagrasa, a technology that captures the sound of water leakage
Leak prelocator equipment from the company Emagrasa, a technology that captures the sound of water leakage

Too Emasagra, the Municipal Supply and Sanitation Company of Granada (and 14 other municipalities in the province), measures its water footprint every two years. «In 2020 we reduced it by 27.85%. Our policy has always been to obtain good performance from water management, it is obviously one of our values, “he says. Isabel Ruiz, Head of the Integrated Management Systems Area. To do this, they carry out from awareness campaigns to consumers to investments to improve the channels of the distribution network and bet on different technologies in various activities. “We have sensors connected to pipes for the early detection of leaks and we also use helium gas,” says Ruiz. And the results are in sight: with the water that recovered in a year detecting leaks could fill 400 Olympic swimming pools. In its two wastewater treatment plants, they remove impurities from the water and reuse part of it and return it to the Genil river.

Recovered local ecosystems

For Heineken Spain Water is an essential resource since it accounts for 95% of the content of the beers it brews. In 2020 it has reduced more than 31% (with respect to 2008) the water consumption in its four factories in Spain: Seville, Jaén, Madrid and Valencia. It also purifies 100% of the wastewater generated by cleaning containers and maintenance. And they intend to return 100% of the water in their beers to its source: the rivers. To this end, it has carried out actions in Doñana, La Albufera and the Jarama river, in order to improve their ecosystems.

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