All major corporations have water stewardship goals and programs to maintain a healthy watershed in the areas they operate within. For most of these, the focus has been on water-stressed areas, which bring risks in terms of business, social license to operate and costs. However, even in water stressed areas where reuse is one strategy for mitigating these risks, companies face technical, regulatory and consumer perception barriers to reusing process wastewater. In a recent panel discussion with four global beverage companies, we discussed these challenges. They highlighted the following points as most relevant:

  • Consumer perception of recycled water. Even if the water can be treated to potable standards, consumers will still have a “yuck” factor. For food & beverage companies, we are still many years away from putting recycled water back in product or in contact with the product.
  • Regulatory challenges related to permitting and sharing water between companies. These limit how much any company can reuse water, as well as create complexities for a company with multiple sites that have different regulations from one utility to another.
  • The need for collaboration. Since companies are not operating in a given basin by themselves, shared responsibility and action needs to be taken across multiple stakeholders.

There will always be challenges. The question is what can be done to overcome these challenges. We brought together a second panel discussion [1] with experts from the utility, engineering and end user perspectives who have brought reuse projects to fruition and can share their experience. Four key takeaways were:

  • Proactively engage with your utility and other stakeholders
  • Don’t judge reuse simply by ROI
  • Learn from others who have implemented similar projects
  • Incorporate reuse into factory design

Panel of water experts

(left to right, in order of appearance on the second panel (sponsored by Aquacycl), which can be found on YouTube) included Paul Bowen (ret.), former water and sustainability executive, Coca-Cola and a past president of the Water Environment Federation; Holly Johnson Churman, P.E., water treatment and desalination service line leader - Americas at GHD Greater Pittsburgh Region; Rebecca West, director of program & project management (Water Management), AECOM; and Gary Tilkian, resource specialist, Metropolitan Water District, Los Angeles County, California.

Collaboration with your utility

Collaboration cannot be overstated. Collaboration includes other large users in the watershed, as well as the local utility. The utility can be a partner that can offer experience, funding (sometimes), and ultimately determine the success of onsite reuse projects.

Companies need to start by understanding the challenges that reuse faces for the utility, as onsite reuse means lower water returned to the utility, resulting in lower revenues to the city, concerns about water quality and supply, as well as potential impacts on the watershed (lower flows into the receiving body). The collaboration between industry and their water supplier is important on both sides, both the wastewater and the ingredient water.

In water-stressed areas, these discussions will likely be easier to have than in water-rich ones, however, even in water-rich areas, utilities are starting to think differently and entertain opportunities for water reuse. There is a shift in the water industry as the water utility must explore how to become more resilient and forward-thinking in planning for long-term water supplies. Progressive water policies also can help create the right environment that attracts new industries which value water.

Regulatory differences between utilities are a common challenge, and the EPA recently launched a tool called Reuse Explorer [2], which is a comprehensive compilation of regulations for multiple sources of water and reuse applications for all 50 states. This can be a first step for companies to understand the various regulatory frameworks that they operate within.

Consider multiple factors in the ROI

When planning for reuse, local context is everything. What makes sense in Southern California may not make sense in South Carolina. The first questions to answer are related to water availability and quality, but reuse could be driven by various factors, including emerging contaminants like PFAS and the ability to secure future water supplies. To get started and understand the value of a reuse project, companies can conduct a resiliency assessment, understanding the long-term plan for a facility and water management plans.

“We [end users] always struggle with the underlying return on investment associated with reuse projects that sometimes don’t fully pay for themselves, and so we have to look for other things, like trying to find the risk that’s mitigated by certain types of water reuse or other factors,” says, Paul Bowen, former sustainability officer at Coca-Cola and a past president of the Water Environment Federation.

The ROI is not always obvious in many of these projects, so a lot of the challenge comes down to how the projects are valued and what success looks like. There are a variety of factors that should be considered as part of the overall project benefit, including brand recognition (being perceived as a good water steward), climate change risk and financial risk. All of these help to improve the justification for reuse projects beyond pure ROI.

When considering ROI, it is important to look at the different needs and uses in the facility. The economics of the reuse project depends on what the potential application for reused water is. It may not be cost effective to treat to potable quality but reusing minimally treated wastewater for floor washing or landscape irrigation helps reduce dependence on fresh water. Depending on the end application, technological choices will vary, which makes this a central consideration during the design process.

Advances in technology have brought down costs in treatment technologies across the board, and continued development will help make reuse projects more accessible to a wider range of companies in the future.

In some communities, the utility or water supply agency may provide incentive programs which help to offset the cost of these projects. One example is Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWDSC) has been subsidizing conservation and reclamation for over 30 years and works with end users, NGOs, and consultants to help fund qualified projects. This is done as they recognize that conservation is less expensive than finding new water supplies.

Learn from others

There are many reuse projects that have taken place that companies can learn from. Organizations like the EPA, Metropolitan Water Southern California and BIER are collecting and sharing case studies to replicate successes in other companies and areas. Companies can find inspiration from similar projects, understanding how they were done and what the community, economic and environmental benefits are.

Design for the factory (and utility) of the future

For new builds, it is easier to design for reuse as they don’t face the same challenges that existing sites have. Existing facilities usually have been designed such that water reuse is an afterthought, with a common collection for all process water, which makes reuse more challenging, as there could be contaminants and/or require additional treatment. As new facilities (and utilities) are built, there is an opportunity to shift how we are thinking about the design and planning that make reuse an integral part of the design. By rethinking the factory of the future that considers water as a resource that is conserved and able to be reused, companies are building for the future.

“[At Coke], one of the things that we did was look at how we could capture flows right out of a cleaning process, so the water never hits the floor so minimal treatment was needed. Once it hits the floor, it goes down the drain and gets mixed with everything else,” says Bowen.

Another idea for design would be to separate out high-strength streams, which are usually the most expensive and challenging part to treat for food & beverage companies. By treating the highest concentrations onsite, companies can decrease sewer costs and possibly reuse some of that water.

The future of reuse

There is momentum for the push that is happening, fueled by a growing interest in corporate sustainability, a greater understanding of climate impacts, and societal pressures on companies to become better stewards of our water resources. This is forcing companies to go beyond the low-hanging fruit to ensure that water quantity and quality is available in areas they operate within.

“These factors are really starting to impact how businesses are starting to think about their business, as it is about the bottom line, but it’s also about being a good community and environmental steward,” says Rebecca West, director of program & project management (Water Management), AECOM. “It’s also a bit of a call to action for water utilities to change their thinking of how they engage and work hand in hand with industries instead of trying to regulate industries.”

As reuse becomes more widely accepted, there will be a push to rethink current regulations. While the regulations of today have been put into place to safeguard and ensure water quality, future regulations can help to build capacity in the systems that we have. Organizations like the Water Reuse Association is focused on bringing reuse opportunities and regulatory frameworks that support reuse both at a utility and industrial level. These types of organizations help drive change not at the individual level, but systematically putting in place policies that make it easier for industrial companies to invest in reuse.

“For industry to kind of get off center there’s got to be a driver, and whether it’s somebody externally saying, here’s the risk, or rising prices or concerns about quality,” says Bowen. “Those are things that are going to push industry to truly look at reuse in those applications.”

Orianna Bretschger, CEO and founder of Aquacycl, appeared in FE’s Engineering R&D in the March, 2021 edition.