Industrial Water can be a tax for being in business for many companies. Without water, there’s no production of any good!

But how central is it for any industrial company? For a long time, it wasn’t (at all). But things are changing. Water scarcity poses new arbitrations everywhere around the globe, where some users have to cut their abstractions.

And if the Water Industry can’t cut what people drink (Utility Water) or eat (Agriculture Water), where do you hit? On Industrial Water! Hence, managing water becomes integral to these companies’ bottom line. Here’s what this new paradigm changes ⬇️

What is Industrial Water?

Many (well, all!) industries use water in their production process to create products or cool the equipment used in that same production. Hence, this water is simply called “Industrial Water.”

Now, unlike drinking water, that’s an international standard and (almost) identical everywhere around the globe, industrial water comes in as many shapes as types of manufactured production lines there are.

In most industrial water applications, the quality specification is very stringent, as water is integral to the final good. This often means that complex and high-end water treatments have to operate on-site to render water fit for purpose.

On the other end of that use cycle, wastewater treatment is an important section of the facilities water cycle. Indeed, factory-made water pollutions are often very specific and more complex to treat than conventional domestic sewage and require specific systems and treatment services.

How to prevent Industrial Water pollution?

In the early days of the Industrial revolution, little care was given to environmental considerations. This is how the Thames River in London turned into what was called at the time a “Monster Soup.”

Industrial Water was first returned untreated to the environment
– Shall we care about the environment?
– The… what?

But as the industrialization of the World came together with an increase in population and densification of cities, it swiftly became mandatory to actively cope with Wastewater, and control the associated pollution.

This is why wastewater treatment was first deployed in manufacturing sites, as the first effluent limitations guidelines started to pop up.

But for decades, this was only seen as a “tax to be in business.” An opinion still widely shared by industrial players nowadays. What’s starting to change here, is the vision industrial players get, that valuable resources can be won back from wastewater. This includes, of course, water, but also heat, chemicals, energy, or a wide range of other components.

What are typical Industrial Water treatments?

On the clean side of things, where industrial water is produced to fit the process’ need, there are some process water hits. The four main categories of industrial treatments seek to solve scaling, corrosion, microbiological activity, and discharge of residual wastewater.

Treatment Technologies to achieve a Target Water Quality

Membrane treatments are the rockstar of modern industrial water treatment processes. When it comes to catering water quality to a process, their physical properties make them a go-to. To round things off, polymeric or ceramic membranes are convenient to automate, which simplifies the operator’s life.

In micro-electronics or semi-conductor industries, you encounter a special type of water quality: ultrapure water. This water shall be free from any other component than H2O, up to parts per billion! Processes like Ion Exchangers, Steam disinfection, or electrolytic ozone generation enable this high purity, on top of reverse osmosis.

Specific Technologies to cope with Industrial Wastewater

The other end of the cycle depends as well on the industry you’re in. In pulp and paper, you’ll encounter wastewater with high COD content, and a wide proportion of hard COD. As a consequence, treatments have to adapt. Hence, you’ll encounter ozone, electro chlorination, or advanced oxidation processes.

You’ll see similar stories in Food and Beverage, but sometimes with a multiple in terms of complexity. These high-strength wastewaters can be full of sugar and require very special treatment technologies, such as anaerobic reactors, microbial fuel, and electrolysis cells or membrane aerated bioreactors.

There’s also an emerging category here: endocrine disruptors, micropollutants, and PFAS. This swiftly becomes an facilities liability, while processes and technologies adapt.

Industrial Water Utilities

I get this may sound strange. But even industrial sites have their utilities! Most processes will need water to wash or rinse, for instance. And water is often also the medium of choice when it comes to cooling or heating. Hence, you’ll see specific networks on a plant premise, to cope with these needs.

… and of course, the afferent treatment technologies at work!

How does Industrial Waste cause Water pollution?

Not every pollution initially leaves an industrial site through its water discharge. There is also solid waste!

That solid waste can be dealt with by incineration, in which case, most of the burden lies in the off-gas. Pollution limitation guidelines tell what’s allowed to be sent back to the atmosphere, while the rest has to be washed off – often in scrubbers. Fixed in water, that industrial pollution now has to be treated, which leads us back to the step we previously addressed.

The other way to deal with waste is to bring it to landfills, in which case pollution concentrates in leachate. Leachate is the water that “infuses” or comes out with time at the contact of waste. And in turn – you’d guessed it right? – it needs to be treated as well.

What is the Water Impact of Industry?

Generally speaking, on the bigger scale of things, Industrial Water represents 20% of our world’s freshwater use. So about twice more than domestic uses (10%) but much less than the 70% of agriculture!

Now, that amount encompasses wide disparities from one place to another. For instance, in the United States or as a global average across the European Union, Industrial Water rather represents about 48% of the water abstractions.

And if we look for the world champions to that extent, we can cite Germany (investing 81% of its water in its Manufacturing Sector), the Netherlands (92%), or Estonia (97%).

What’s the impact you ask? Well, I’ve been investigating this in a bit more detail right here.

What did we learn about Industrial Water in 2021?

Today, we will be looking at an almost invisible part of the Water Industry, and I know I’ve already said that about Water Networks, but this time it’s different: it’s Water hidden in plain sight. The water you touch, eat or wear, without realizing it’s actually water. Simply said, it’s all the Water used in industrial applications.

Because, as Mina Gulli reveals:

Just one outfit took more Water to make than all the water you’ll drink in your whole lifetime.

Mina Guli

If you’re intrigued by that statement, I fact-checked it:

But that fact is not only true (Oops, did I spoil) for our outfits, but for most of the goods we enjoy or own, as Navkaran Singh Bagga recalls:

The issue is that everything we do and everything we’re surrounded by whether it is the steel on that microphone that you have, or the shirt you wear, that processing required huge amounts of Water. So Water is actually something that consumes us. The problem is that we’re not getting Water conscious in that sense. And I don’t think we ever will, to be honest. I don’t think that the meat industry is going to see a revolution because it consumes X-amounts of Water. However, we will see more and more processes becoming more Water friendly. The primary example in that space is hydroponics. Hydroponics is somehow Water-friendly agriculture.

Navkaran Singh Bagga

The share of Industry in the Water Mix Worldwide

I guess you roughly know the ratios: 70% of the World’s Water is spent on agriculture, 10% on households, and the remaining 20% in Industry.

And, when Water goes scarce, where do you cut first? That’s not just a rhetorical question: by 2030, the World will miss 40% of the Water needed to cover all the demand. So, we might produce more or use Water better, which leads to Water Reuse, as we’ve seen in our deep dive on the matter.

If not, cases like Taïwan cutting its semi-conductor production by lack of Water will multiply.

Yet, as Navkaran just underlined, he doesn’t expect the manufacturing sector to boldly change on its own its relationship to Water. Are you wondering why? Well, Manaf Farhan has a very logical explanation:

The people who do the production, know how to make soda. They know how to make cheese and they know how to make a cake. They don’t care about wastewater. To them, it’s an afterthought.

Manaf Farhan – CEO & Founder of EMG International

That’s what I meant with Water hidden in plain sight. You need a lot of water to run an industrial process, but it is very rarely a real component of the final product. So it’s just a utility that’s out of focus for operators that are dedicated to assembling a car, producing a t-shirt, or cooking some chemicals.

The invisible Water

I can tell you by experience that I’ve seen industrial plants where a Water Mass Balance was simply missing 30% of the Water. Nobody had a clue where this Water was flowing. And honestly, before I asked, nobody cared neither.

Yet, if Industrial sites want to ensure their sustainability and continuous operation in the future, they will have to secure their water cycle, which is absolutely not obvious to them, as Manaf Farhan underlines again:

The issue that we fight the most is acceptance because people still don’t trust wastewater treatment. They still don’t trust that it can be done effectively and reliably. And they think, you know what? I’ll just put it in the sewer and pay that money and not have the headache.

Manaf Farhan

But if you take Water in, use it and flush it, you’re on your own the day you’re not allowed to consume fresh water anymore.

And that’s only the first part of the problem, because actually on the other end of the sewer, someone else has a problem: the municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Industrial Water is… Special!

Indeed, facilities wastes are often special, rich in COD or in special contaminants, as Henrik Hagemann explains:

It’s basically like this small group of contaminants, less than 20% of the stuff in Water, which basically mess up more than 80% of the fresh Water we have available.

Henrik Hagemann

That makes it even more frustrating to see that those pollutants get flushed to the sewer because aside from the water balance question, it poses an efficiency problem. Special contaminants in high concentrations in small volumes of Water are much cheaper to treat than the same contaminants now in very low concentrations, diluted in large volumes of other sources of Water.

This is true for many families of pollutants, some of them known for decades. But is also especially true for emerging contaminants like PFAS, as Henrik Hagemann recalls:

Industry-wise, there’s definitely a massive awakening. Like when you see fortune 100 companies losing billions of dollars of market cap because of PFAS liabilities, like we saw in 2019, it’s like, holy cow, it’s really moving to the top of the corporate agenda.

Henrik Hagemann

That’s just the beginning of the awakening on the link between industrial contaminations and the struggle of municipal systems.

Industrial pollutions are challenging

If you’ve listened to my deep dive on distributed treatments, you know that solutions exist, thanks to process automation and digitization. So it’s about leveraging these new possibilities to solve an ever-growing problem, because as Henrik Hagemann explains:

The Nordic council of ministers. So this is the government. They basically put a price tag on the cost of PFAS chemicals and the blood in Europeans. It’s 84 billion euros in annual costs every year. And that’s across 740 million citizens roughly in EDU. So you have actually more than a hundred dollars spent in health cost every year, just for PFS.

Henrik Hagemann

So how do we deal with Water Scarcity and Industrial Water allocations? How do we manage manufacturing processes by-products?

What’s coming down the road?

Basically, there are two possible approaches. First, as Claudia Winkler proposes, we could push for regulations:

Businesses probably will not call for regulation, but we, as people living in our countries should call for strict regulations to force companies to fulfill. And not only talk the walk, but walk the talk!

Claudia Winkler

Then, as Mina Gulli underlines, there is also an explanation effort to conduce with Industrial Players:

Companies can be quick to act when they know that something impacts or has the risk against their supply chains or their bottom line. Companies have direct water footprints and companies have the capacity to actually deliver change right throughout the tentacles of their wide reaching supply chains.

Mina Guli

The future will probably see a combination of both.

Towards Circular Loops and Resource Recovery

I would personally add a third one: leverage circular resource recovery loops. Because when we talk of high-strength industrial wastewater streams, we also talk of a lot of energy trapped in Water. Chemical energy, heat, potential biomass. And then also a lot more resources, from phosphorus to precious metals through all the shades of chemicals. If you’re interested in this new lens, stay tuned, that’s a topic we will soon investigate in-depth with Steven De Laet on this very podcast!

Do you have friends working in the Industry? Tell them how forgetting about Water is both a risk and missed opportunity: it all starts with a simple share; they will thank you later!