Corporate sustainability is gradually waking up to the global water risk, with large companies such as PepsiCo and Facebook pledging in recent weeks to become net water positive by 2030, meaning that they will contribute more water to the ecosystem than they consume. After “carbon neutral”, “net water positive” could soon become the new green trend.
This new focus on water from very diverse industries is no coincidence. Indeed, intensifying droughts across the world and water supply scarcity are posing operational and financial risks to large and small corporations. On the operational side, it’s quite easy to imagine the upcoming challenges: what if a farmer cannot irrigate his field anymore or if the FAANGs don’t have sufficient water to cool their data centers?
On the financial side, water prices have been rising fast in the last decade (+60-80% on average in some of the largest U.S. cities for example) and this decade should be no different, putting at risk earnings in water-intensive industries such as food & beverages and semiconductors. This cost inflation could also be exacerbated by increasing regulatory requirements, notably as many water-intensive industries operate in water-stressed areas (Mexico, India, Taiwan…).
While the first step in reaching net water positivity will be to develop production or manufacturing processes that are less water intensive, the second and most challenging one will be to replenish watersheds and/or find alternative water sources. Solutions include rainwater/stormwater harvesting, reforestation (as trees store water), the elimination of invasive plants to make it easier for the watershed to absorb rainwater, solar hydro panels to capture air moisture or the purchase and conservation of water rights.
But it’s pretty obvious that the recycling of wastewater will account for the bulk of water replenishment in coming years. If a company (including third-party sites) can recirculate its water or treat it and return it where it was taken, the challenge becomes easier to solve.
The investment opportunity could be huge. Today, only 1% of used water is recycled globally (with some exceptions, e.g., 90% in Israel) as recycling faces financial, technology and psychological barriers: one must be sure that all the pollutants have been removed and that water is totally clean before reuse or disposal.
But adoption could rise dramatically thanks to corporate and public initiatives, with some governments heading towards more supportive recycling regulations. As an illustration, Europe targets 6% of water recycling by 2025 vs. 2% today.
Accordingly, two categories of recycling infrastructures could find themselves in the spotlight: water testing equipment and filtration/treatment systems.
The analysis and monitoring phase (with techniques such as chromatography and spectrometry) is crucial as the quality and toxicity of wastewater must be evaluated to adapt treatment methods to each effluent. For instance, a petrochemical company will not generate a similar wastewater as a textile factory.
Also, water can contain solvents, sediments, and organic matter, dissolved or suspended, and every composite is changing the fluid properties and can modify the approach on how they can be removed. At the end of the recycling process, purified water will need to be re-tested to ensure that it is safe to be reused or injected back in the environment.
After the initial testing phase, water will undergo different cleaning processes depending on its composition but also on the water use afterwards (for drinking water for instance, requirements and legislations will be tougher than for irrigation or flushing water). Traditional sand filters, chlorine treatment, distillation or sedimentation are slowly letting place to more advanced techniques: UV irradiation, nanomembrane filtration and reverse osmosis notably are gaining traction as a wide array of pollutant are removed by these methods at an increasingly competitive price. These more advanced techniques are directly derived from advances made in desalination in the last couple of decades.
Therefore, virtually every purification technique may find its niche as it becomes the best solution for a particular case.
Another interesting development is the introduction of water treatment micro-factories (e.g. by Alfa Laval in partnership with Wayout) that can be installed close to or within factories and that could accelerate companies’ journey towards recycling and net water positivity.
In all, just like they spurred the advent of clean energies in recent years, corporate and public initiatives in favor of a circular water economy are likely to be a massive growth driver for water-related suppliers (Waters, Montrose, Xylem…) and a strong positive for our Aqua certificate.