Is water the natural starting point for the circular economy?
Eliminating waste is one of the magical overlaps between business and the environment. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, circular supply chains that increase the rate of recycling, reuse and remanufacturing could generate more than $1 trillion a year by 2025. Moving from a linear economy, where raw materials are used once and thrown away, to a circular economy where inputs are reused and waste eliminated, is a long-term economic imperative if we are to support a world population of nine billion.
Dow Water is among the first industry incumbents to plot a market strategy aimed at the circular economy. It is offering an alternative to Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) solutions, that it calls “minimal liquid discharge” (MLD). MLD is a toolbox of products and proprietary system designs that Dow claims deliver low-risk benefits today and incrementally while building toward the long-term promise of the circular economy. “In a perfect world, industry could reclaim and reuse 100% of the wastewater it produces. But in the real world, many companies find that this goal.. is costly and difficult to achieve,” notes Snehal Desai, Dow Water’s Global Business Director.
Real world alternative to the holy grail of ZLD?
For decades, policy leaders have touted zero liquid discharge (ZLD) as a cornerstone for forward-looking water projects, from gargantuan Chinese desalination facilities to new manufacturing sites in Island Nations and US power plants. As water becomes scarce and disposal costs skyrocket, manufacturers see the immediate value of decreasing waste. However, moving real-world operations toward zero waste isn’t an overnight event. “If there was ever a Holy Grail of water recovery and reuse in an industrial plant, then it is undoubtedly … ZLD,” wrote industry pundit Gord Cope in 2009. “While it may be difficult and expensive to achieve, zero liquid discharge is easy to define.” Eight years later, analysts continue to project a future market for $100M – $200M annual revenues on the horizon. Although ZLD holds great promise to reduce water pollution and augment water supply, its viability is determined by a balance among the benefits associated with ZLD, energy consumption, and capital/operation costs,” membrane experts Tiezheng Tong and Menachem Elimelech of Yale University noted in a recent survey of leading-edge low-energy membrane solutions.
“Discharge mitigation efforts don’t need to be an all or nothing proposition,” explains Desai. By combining state-of-the-art equipment and proprietary systems design, Dow claims that it can provide 95% of the benefit of ZLD at less than half the cost. In choosing its strategy to help customers shift operations, Dow is leveraging more than its product technologies, drawing on decades of experience with diverse operations around the globe. Moving from a model of “selling stuff” to a model of selling performance reflects the vision of the circular economy. Dow is aligning itself with the long-term strategy of many of the world’s leading manufacturers to reduce risk in their supply chain driven by circular economy initiatives by the World Economic Forum and other business leadership collaboratives.
Case study: General Motors’ San Luis Potosi, Mexico Assembly Plant
One early case study is the General Motors (GM) vehicle assembly plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico (about 400 km northwest of Mexico City), which opened in 2008. The plant, which has an annual capacity of 160,000 cars, is located in an arid, remote area with no receiving stream or municipal sewer available to discharge wastewater. Through a combination of reverse osmosis (RO) technology, a proprietary high-rate chemical softening process, and other technologies, the plant can convert up to 90% of its tertiary wastewater into reusable water, leaving less than 10 percent of liquid waste for discharge into adjacent solar ponds for evaporation.
Collaborative economics of water at community scale– a new challenge for global giants
Desai sees scarcity and regulation driving new models for water management. “There are new economics for water that are driving an innovation revolution, not just focused on products and technology, but a fresh take on how businesses, governments, and other stakeholders work together,” Desai explains. “Collaboration can help drive advancements in technology and new methods for valuing natural capital.” For example, the Dow Terneuzen site in the Netherlands is the city’s largest employer and heaviest industrial water user. Dow collaborated with the municipal water board and a local water company to implement an innovative wastewater recycling program that uses every liter of water three times, instead of just once. As a result, the plant has reduced the energy use associated with water treatment by 95 percent– the equivalent of reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 60,000 tons each year.
“Since water is the single most important shared resource across all supply chains, and wastewater is the largest untapped waste category—as big as all solid-waste categories taken together—it is the natural starting point for the circular revolution,” writes Martin Stuchtey, Managing Partner at SystemIQ and author of the A Good Disruption: Redefining Growth in the Twenty-First Century. “Water is a powerful driver of yield in almost any industrial process and the extraction of raw materials…taken together, these advantages can turn water into a major value driver,” Stuchtey notes.
With a vast global presence in water operations and a parent company that is one the world’s biggest manufacturers, Dow Water has a unique view of market drivers for new water equipment. MLD’s approach and its early results are worth watching. Join us at the Cleantech Forum’s Water Summit to hear more from Dow Water’s Senior R&D Manager, Abhishek Shrivastava. See more useful resources on the circular economy below.
Resources on the Circular Economy:
- “From linear to circular-Accelerating a proven concept.” Towards the circular economy. Accessed January 07, 2017. http://reports.weforum.org/toward-the-circular-economy-accelerating-the-scale-up-across-global-supply-chains/from-linear-to-circular-accelerating-a-proven-concept/.
- Stuchtey, Martin. “Rethinking the water cycle.” McKinsey & Company. May 15, 2015. Accessed January 07, 2017. http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability-and-resource-productivity/our-insights/rethinking-the-water-cycle.
- Stuchtey, Martin R., Per-Anders Enkvist, and Klaus Zumwinkel. A good disruption: redefining growth in the twenty-first century. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
- WorldEconomicForum. “Ellen MacArthur | The Circular Economy Imperative.” YouTube. February 19, 2016. Accessed January 07, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPZFNvrnO4E.