Friday, April 22, 2011
Those 99 bottles of beer on the wall need a lot less H2O to produce than they used to
Special to the Globe and Mail
In water-rich Canada, we tend to take this natural resource for granted. But water conservation, already a subject of vital importance in drier parts of the world, including much of Africa and the western United States, is becoming an issue of global concern. And as climate change concerns intensify, water conservation will become an ever bigger issue.
Because water systems consume huge amounts of energy for pumping and treatment, water conservation is directly linked to the carbon footprint of a company, city or household. Cutting water use means cutting energy use, and many companies are finding innovative ways to decrease the flow.
What’s on tap?
Next month, Labatt Breweries of Canada will be get a Water Efficiency Award from the Ontario Water Works Association, the industry association for drinking-water professionals. The Canadian brewing industry has made big strides in water conservation, and, over the past decade, Labatt’s brewery in London, Ont., has cut the amount of water it uses to make beer by half.
Brewing is a surprisingly water-intensive industry. There’s a lot of equipment and bottles that need to be washed, steam pours off during the brewing process, and water is also used for cooling. In 2003, for every bottle of beer produced, the brewery used the equivalent of more than seven bottles of water. Labatt cut that ratio dramatically, saving enough water to fill nearly 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year just at the brewery in London, where the company began its brewing tradition 164 years ago.
“It’s about controlling costs, but also about creating a better environment for us,” says Jeff Ryan, director of corporate affairs for Labatt Breweries of Canada. “If we don’t protect and save water, we might not be able to brew beer in London for another 164 years.”
One of the big changes came in 2008, when the brewery started re-using water in its bottle washing process. Instead of using fresh water from the city, it would use the water from the final rinse of one batch of bottles for the pre-rinse of the next batch. Along with improving sensors on the washers, this saved 86 million litres a year, the equivalent of 34 swimming pools.
Companies and governments are going to have different reasons for conserving water in different regions, but the bottom line will always be a strong motivator. As pressure on water resources intensifies, the cost of water will go up, making conservation an even bigger priority.
In Ontario, the pressure largely comes from the cost of water infrastructure, such as pipes and treatment facilities. However, across the border in the Great Lakes states, supply is a bigger issue.
A huge volume of water is diverted from the Great Lakes into thirstier parts of the U.S., most famously through the Chicago Diversion, which began with a shipping canal in 1848 and today serves some 7 million people.
In 2008, a powerful new piece of legislation called the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Compact came into effect, ratified by Canada, the U.S., Ontario, Quebec and the eight states in the basin. It requires that water taken from the basin for use must be treated and returned to the basin, and also bans new water diversions. If a city straddling the basin’s border wants to grow, it will need to cut water use to free up supply.
By contrast, in the Prairies, climate change itself will make water scarcity an issue. According to The New Normal, an anthology of research about climate change and the Canadian Prairies published by the Canadian Plains Research Centre at the University of Regina, the region will not necessarily get drier. Instead, it will have more concentrated and intense bursts of rainfall between drought periods. As a result, the priority will be on improving the efficiency of reservoirs, covering irrigation canals to reduce evaporation, and conserving water in cities so reservoirs don’t run dry and crops don’t wither during droughts.
Whether it’s saving money, deferring infrastructure costs or simply making sure there’s enough water to go around, companies and governments are going to be increasingly challenged to find innovative ways to conserve water in years to come. In some cases it will require new technology. In others, it will be as simple as making it a priority to fix leaks or use a smaller spray nozzle.