What is net-zero water?

PUBLISHED TUES, DEC 8th 2021 10:00 AM

What does Net Zero Water mean for the food and beverage industry? Net Zero Water is predicted to become part of regular corporate lexicon as an integral part of a forward-looking organization’s commitment to sustainability and a renewable economy.

At its heart, the EPA definition seems simplistic. “Achieving Net Zero Water means limiting the consumption of water resources and returning it back to the same watershed so as not to deplete the resources of that region in quantity or quality over the course of the year”.

As the challenge of freshwater scarcity is more widely recognised, companies will need help to change their way of working with water. This indicates that change must be driven at a fundamental level, from company owners, shareholders and management down. This can only happen if there is sufficient motivation, and actions speak louder than words.

As CNBC reported, “The goal is really twofold,” Jim Andrew, PepsiCo chief sustainability officer, said at CNBC’s ESG Impact summit on Thursday. “We’re looking at the entire value chain. It’s really about how do we reduce across the whole system, the absolute amount of water that’s used. Everywhere in that chain. And then second, how do we replenish more than we end up using?”

There is little argument that water as a resource is part of a perpetual cycle; but how that water is managed by users of it, within the natural cycle, is key to ongoing sustainability of the quality of the water within the cycle and therefore the continued availability. This conundrum places onus back on the user of that water to return it, of equal or better quality, to where it was sourced from or to reuse that water within the user’s immediate environment.

Coca Cola Australia is proudly Water Neutral and director of sustainable operations at Coca-Cola, Dr Paul Bowen, is quoted on the companies website as saying ““We realised that we needed to reduce the amount of water we were using and we needed to give back water that was used in our production and in our beverages,”

Coca-Cola has since achieved the target and has reduced water use for 14 years in a row. “And now I can go into just about any plant and ask, ‘How much water do you use?’ Paul said. “And they can tell me…That’s a tremendous culture shift and a tremendous shift in the way the company’s done business and that’s been extremely rewarding,”

The traditional challenges that corporates face in going down the net-zero path is cost, regulatory oversight and passion to pursue it. In Australia, the University of Queensland, The Victorian Department of Water, Environment, Land and Planning, the Monash Sustainable Development Institute have joined forces to launch The Net Zero Water Cycle Program (NZWCP), which “aims to comprehensively and systematically identify technical, behavioral and enabling factors that lead to sustainable reductions in water related energy (electricity and gas) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the use of water in the entire water cycle across Metropolitan Melbourne”.

To answer the question posed by Jim Andrew, of PepsiCo, requires we take a look at what is happening now, and where the industry leaders see as the best opportunities for positive action. From the perspective of Waterform Technologies’ experience in over 15 years of delivering water recovery and reuse projects, Lloyd Buchner, Water Consultant at Waterform, has a clear message. “When companies view water sustainability projects in terms of cost-benefit alone, they rarely fly. The momentum has to come from a company directive or sustainability goal”.

As access to capital & product markets threatens to dry up for corporate, publicly listed companies that do not publish auditable targets and results around sustainability, especially since the COP26 conference, there is a renewed urgency to break new ground in sustainability solutions.

Wayne Ellis, General Manager at Duxton Vineyards, part of the Duxton Group, and recent recipient of Sustainability Accreditation is clear what their future holds as reported by the Wine Business Magazine. “At Duxton our mission is to pave the way and lead by example for our local $24 billion wine industry and show exactly what healthy sustainable management could yield for the environment, as well as the business. “We want to actively do something to better the climate; to make a positive impact as a grower and producer.”

Practically, what does this all mean?

At a granular level, this could mean for a food and beverage processor that they continue to champion consumption reduction and control at the source, such as at processing, packaging equipment, and cleaning routines, via the automation of water delivery and training of staff, to change a culture of wastage. To make a truly meaningful difference, these companies are increasingly aware that recovery and reuse is a critical pathway forward to meet Net Zero Water targets.

The elephant in the room is wastewater reuse and recovery – the core action that companies can undertake to make strides in meeting water sustainability goals. This means that regulatory governance is going to have to move with the times and help streamline water reuse approval processes within water intensive businesses says Lloyd Buchner. “Conversations with industry bodies and regulators proves that the appetite is there – and the technology is certainly proven and reliable, but some rules need to change to allow straight forward adoption of wastewater recovery and reuse within food contact areas”.

“The fact is, that the level of treatment technology used leaves the water so sterile and pure that it’s testing as superior quality to tap water. And the source water is not from any human sewage contaminated sources, so technically, if you compared a food or beverage factory wastewater with a common water source for townships, such as the Murray River in Australia, the level of source water risk is actually lower!”

Buchner explains that normally a risk management plan would be developed for the water recovery and reuse treatment infrastructure, and the critical control points would then slot into the site HACCP plan, ensuring any closed loop water recycling system is auditable and controllable.

Technologies are evolving with the adoption of new materials in membrane filtration such as ceramics and nanocoating, higher recovery desalination technology to reduce wastage, recover saleable, dry salt, along with smart sensors and monitoring, all contributing to a better outcome for companies who know that water sustainability projects must be for the long term, with 10-year and 20-year projections made for operational costs.

This leads to a key question – who will fund such projects for companies without the financial clout of companies like Coca-Cola or PepsiCo? The good news is that flexible funding options not unlike those seen in the energy industry are becoming available as lenders look to move into the water space.

The future is bright for proponents of water positive programs, but practically realities must be addressed. “Sustainability should be integrated in the business because this is where the issue and dilemmas have to be solved,” said Juvencio Maeztu, group CFO & deputy CEO of Ikea parent company Ingka, in the CNBC interview.

While Net Zero Water will provoke dilemmas in the boardroom, on the ground, the evidence exists to show that it is entirely feasible and closed loop recycling projects deserve support. Buchner says that Waterform Technologies is producing water balance modelling & engineering feasibility studies for multinational corporations that go to the fine level of detail that even involves how such recycling systems can be plumbed and connected at a particular site.

“No stone can be left unturned in the pursuit of water sustainability goals”.


Contact Lloyd Buchner: +61(0)3 5447 3045