By Jared Lazerson
In the midst of a global water crisis, industries today too often overlook a river of revenue opportunity: their own wastewater.
With the right investments and technology, what many industrial operators currently view as a financial burden and reputational risk can be a source of new revenue. Despite its name, industrial wastewater often contains useful substances that can be recovered and sold. For example, agricultural wastewater holds huge amounts of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen; mining wastewater contains trace minerals that could not be recovered during the extraction process. In the oil industry, water drawn from deep underground reservoirs — which oil producers spend millions to dispose of — often contains minerals such as lithium and magnesium that are currently in high demand.
By recognizing the value in the water they produce and viewing wastewater management as an opportunity to recover resources, companies can create a new revenue source while also reducing pollution, keeping surrounding communities and environments healthy and happy.
The UN estimates that 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, toxic sludge, solvents and other waste are dumped into waterways every year. The toxins in these waste products destroy aquatic life and pollute drinking water. At the same time, companies are spending enormous amounts of time and money to comply with water quality laws, particularly in developed nations with robust environmental laws.
But regulation has limited effectiveness when it comes to reducing water pollution. In the U.S., regulations can vary widely between states and even cities and towns, and can also change radically from one political administration to the next. For companies operating in multiple states or countries, the unpredictability and patchwork of regulations make it difficult to implement wastewater treatment programs that comply with all applicable rules and laws for the long term.
Rather than relying on regulation for guidance, companies should seek to recover value from wastewater instead of just treating it for disposal; in so doing, businesses can build a consistent wastewater treatment program. New technologies make now the right time for a circular economy-based solution to industrial wastewater management. As more countries industrialize their economies and further strain freshwater resources, there is an economic case for industries to make investments in recovering value from wastewater. Many companies are already making that investment: the growing global wastewater treatment market was estimated to be worth over $50 billion in 2016.
The oil industry is well-versed in the challenges of wastewater management. The “black gold” that oil operators pump from the ground is almost always accompanied by brackish water that’s not fit for drinking or other uses. This water, known as produced water, along with wastewater from other oil production processes, add up to a major financial liability for oil companies. On average, for every barrel of oil produced in the U.S., the industry produces seven barrels of wastewater. The bustling oilfields of the Permian Basin in Texas produce 30 to 50 million barrels of wastewater per day, according to a Bloomberg estimate.
The oil industry can tap into emerging opportunities to extract the minerals found in produced water. Municipal wastewater streams are a prime target for new companies developing technologies to extract valuable materials from this enormous untapped resource.
The world’s available freshwater resources are stressed, and expanding water-intensive industries are stressing these resources even further. It’s clear that regulation alone will not solve this problem. To prepare for a water-scarce future, companies should move beyond water treatment and disposal and shift toward resource recovery and reuse. The technology is available today, so there’s no reason for companies to hesitate in adopting new approaches to wastewater management that benefit everyone, including their own bottom line.
Jared Lazerson is the President, CEO and Director of MGX Minerals. He has worked in the mining and technology industries since 1994, with companies including Osprey Systems (GPS and Digital Mapping), United Helicopters, Copper Island Mines and Manto Resources. Jared holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania.