Recycling wastewater: it’s time for food and drink sector to step up

Engineering expert Ian Hart, of adi Projects, says the food and drink sector can make a real difference to contribute positively discusses the benefits of recycling wastewater.

Since the beginning of the last century, water use across the globe has increased exponentially, rising from around 500 billion m³ to over 4 trillion m³ in 2014, primarily as a result of the move towards more resource-intensive practices in many industries.

And if this figure isn’t concerning enough, the detrimental effects of droughts should give us an insight into why responsible water usage should be one of our priorities.

According to the UN, the world is heading towards a global water crisis, which will cause global water demand to exceed supply by 40% by 2030. With such an alarming estimate, identifying the main factors contributing to this fast-rising crisis should be paramount.

Can food manufacturers make a difference?

Ian Hart, Business Development Director of adi Projects, believes so.

He says, “Currently, the food manufacturing industry is responsible for over 70% of all freshwater use, meaning that implementing procedures dedicated to saving water would have an enormous impact on this figure.”

Reducing water stress is already a vital part of initiatives such as WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment 2030, which aims to provide the means for the food and drink sector to achieve global environmental goals with collaborative action.

Companies such as PepsiCo have been adopting water-saving and wastewater recycling processes for over a decade with astonishing results, cutting water usage by 26% while also saving $80 million in operational costs.

Meanwhile, food and drink production giant Nestlé has, in recent years, focused specifically on wastewater treatment, having built facilities to this end in all Central and West Africa Region factories and beyond.

As a result, the company reduced water consumption by 10% in its Tema factory in Ghana, and saves 16,500 tons of water a month (the equivalent of 500,000 litres a day) in its baby milk plant in Qingdao, China, with plans to continue to optimise water usage in more locations.

So, what exactly does wastewater recycling involve?

Wastewater recycling is the process of partial or total water reuse, essentially contributing to creating a circular economy – a substantial help in bringing us closer to meeting our environmental goals.

“Wastewater can be reused in a variety of ways, with a plethora of benefits. When businesses have the means to implement water recycling procedures, failing to grasp the opportunity is quite simply a waste of money as well as resources,” explains Ian.

Businesses operating in the food and drink industry produce a significant amount of liquid waste, which is referred to as trade effluent.

Due to the disastrous environmental impact that wastewater can have when not managed correctly, there are significant limitations on how companies can dispose of it, restricting the type and quantity of waste that can be deposited into sewers.

This, coupled with potentially costly financial charges should anything go wrong, should prompt manufacturers to find new ways to handle waste.

“The food and drink sector naturally needs vast quantities of water to run its operations, and while there’s little that can be done to reduce the required amount of water, manufacturers should aim to become more resilient. Wastewater recycling has the ability to make a considerable difference.

“While potentially being a costly investment for businesses in the beginning stages, water treatment equipment and facilities ultimately provide great return on investment, as proved by companies such as PepsiCo,” comments Ian.

Given its potential to provide substantial savings and help meet global environmental goals, why is wastewater recycling not yet a widespread procedure in the food and drink industry?

The problem with wastewater recycling

While the UK is well-known for its treatment and recycling of wastewater, adopting these processes on an individual scale presents different challenges, one of which is the negative public perception of wastewater recycling in food manufacturing.

“Aside from lack of availability of equipment and steep prices discouraging business owners, there’s a general reluctancy to implement these processes due to potential reputational damage in countries such as the UK,” says Ian.

Contamination concerns are at the forefront of consumers’ and manufacturers’ minds, and while treating water that is subsequently going to come into contact with food directly is more problematic, wastewater can be utilised for a variety of other purposes, too.

“Wastewater can be reused in factories for specific indoor uses such as toilet flushing, cleaning of equipment and many industrial processes that don’t require complicated processes of decontamination,” adds Ian.

Though it might not yet be possible for wastewater recycling to be implemented as part of standard procedures, there are numerous ways businesses can optimise their water usage and play a role in achieving environmental goals.

adi Projects is a division of UK engineering firm. adi Group.

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