Making Every Drop Count: Water Scarcity in Manufacturing
Water is one of the most important resources on our planet — it is a core component in nearly every industry and a requirement for life. However, water shortages across the U.S. are becoming a growing concern, with significant knock-on effects for consumers. From already increasing water costs and nearly annual water use restrictions to potential water rationing in the next century, industries need to start planning their water strategies now.
This is particularly relevant for the manufacturing industry, which, withdraws 18.2 billion gallons a day, with apparel, beverages, and biotechnology/pharmaceuticals as the leading users. Furthermore, manufacturing is typically concentrated in specific regions, which compounds this demand, putting more pressure on local water resources. Manufacturing accounts for over 75% of water use in 60 U.S. counties.
Manufacturers that take the time to develop more water efficient processes will be in a better position and have resilient processes in place as water shortage issues intensify.
Current State of Water Resources in the U.S.
Data shows that water will continue to become scarcer over the next century. Already, droughts are becoming more severe and occurring more often.
Coupled with these drier conditions, water demand is steadily increasing, driven by industrial growth and the U.S.’s growing population. By 2100, the U.S. population is projected to have increased by 200 million compared to today. This growth is driving predictions that by the early 2070s, nearly half of freshwater basins in the U.S. will be unable to meet monthly water demands.
This shift is already underway and is a real concern, particularly in the U.S. southwest. 2021 marked the region’s first-ever official water shortage, which led to mandatory water cuts in the Colorado River Basin.
The Impact of Water Scarcity on Manufacturing
Water use varies by type of manufacturing and product, yet it is a core component for nearly all manufacturing facilities. This includes production, cleaning, transportation, and even as a raw material in the product itself. Combined, this is a huge demand and requirement for the end product.
For example, producing a single T-shirt takes over 700 gallons of water and 3,400 gallons for a smartphone. For comparison, the average U.S. adult uses about 80 gallons per day. This means a T-shirt is over 8.5 times one person’s daily water use, and a smartphone is over 42 days’ worth.
If water prices increase, there will likely also be an increase in final product cost passed on to consumers. Taken one step further, if water use restrictions are implemented, production capacity may suffer, disrupting supply chains and potentially overall output capacity. In either case, this will incentivize consumers to look for other products or manufacturers, which can be disastrous for long-term company success.
Improving Water Efficiency in Manufacturing
As with most business concerns, there are solutions that help mitigate risk. For water, this primarily hinges on implementing solutions to reduce overall water use and improve water efficiency. While this is variable between production facilities, a few core pillars guide these efforts across the industry. These are grouped into operational, behavioral, and equipment changes.
Operational changes focus on altering steps throughout the manufacturing process. This can be done by implementing alternative production steps that are less water-intensive or even identifying and repairing water leaks. However, the most impactful focus area is often identifying water recycling and reuse solutions.
For example, semiconductor manufacturing plants can typically recycle 40% to 70% of the water needed for their operations using existing wastewater treatment technologies. Because it is such a water-intensive production process — requiring upwards of 10 million gallons of water a day for large facilities — significant investment has gone into optimizing water. This is leading to further innovation, with new treatment technologies showing up to 98% water recycling efficiency. In this case, demand drives innovation, which will have significant effects across the industry.
Behavioral changes target the actions that companies and employees make that use water. These range from educating employees on water efficiency efforts to developing water management policies. It is about creating a culture within the company and its supply chain that is aware water efficiency is a priority.
A great starting point is to designate a water efficiency coordinator, create a mission statement, and develop a roadmap to reduce water use. For smaller companies, specialized consultants can provide valuable insights, develop strategies, and spearhead ongoing initiatives.
Equipment changes are straightforward — switch out existing equipment for more water-efficient alternatives. However, identifying high-water use equipment with a viable alternative can be difficult.
A way to identify these high-priority options is by first tracking water use throughout your facility to identify low-efficiency equipment. With that data, you can review alternative equipment options for the most cost-efficient choice.
Towards a Water-Resilient Future in Manufacturing
As water scarcity continues to grow, it will fall on manufacturing companies to ensure they are ready for the changes. Getting ahead of the curve now is one of the best ways to be prepared and have resilient systems in place. An added benefit is that decreasing water use supports a company’s performance on ESG metrics, which are increasingly required to operate in the global economy.
Working with knowledgeable sustainability consultants like Emerald Built Environments can help facilitate this process. We offer tailored solutions that not only reduce water use but also embed sustainability into your larger business strategy. Learn how we can help your business be resilient as sustainability continues to grow as a core part of business strategy.