By Laura Martin
Available water supply can be compromised by more than just drought — a challenge food and beverage manufacturers know well.
“Anyone relying on water supply to make a product has to always plan for low water years and high water years,” said Joseph Cotruvo, one of the authors of Water Recovery and Reuse: Guideline for Safe Application of Water Conservation Methods in Beverage Production and Food Processing. “Drought, changes in seasons, or unexpected weather events can reduce the water quantity available to use. Some areas, even those that don’t have a drought, have very tight restrictions on the amount of water that can be withdrawn. There are many factors that may mean you’ll end up having less water than you’d like to have.”
As water resources become more strained, many food and beverage companies are turning to reuse to reduce the amount of water they require and the amount of wastewater they must dispose.
“Obviously food and beverage production is very water intensive, not only because of the water content in the product itself, but because of the water needed to clean equipment and materials, as well as the water needed for packaging and canning,” said Cotruvo. “A lot of companies are being squeezed because they need more water, and they may not have access to more water. So they must reuse, and figuring out the most effective way to do that can be a challenge.”
The water recovery and reuse guide created by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), aims to make water reuse practices easier to implement for food and beverage manufactures. The guide features information on how to conduct a water usage audit, identify points where efficiencies can be increased, select appropriate technologies, conduct a hazard analysis of critical control points, and develop, implement, or refine a water safety plan.
Not all water can be safely reused at a food or beverage manufacturing plant. The guide does not include any information about how to reuse “black water” — water that comes into contact with human waste.
For food and beverage water reuse practices there are two different ways of using recycled water outlined in the guideline: high-end use and low-end use.
Recycled water used for high-end processes — like bottle washing or the washing of pipes or equipment — must be handled differently than other types of water reuse because it indirectly comes into contact with a food or beverage product. This recycled water must be disinfected to drinking water standards as defined by the World Health Organization, using technologies like reverse osmosis (RO), membranes, disinfection, ozone, and granular activated carbon, explained Cotruvo. Recycled water used for low-end uses, like washing trucks or skids outside, is treated primarily for microbial quality requirements.
“If you are using water in the plant anywhere near product, it has to be drinking water quality,” said Cotruvo. “If you are using water to clean your skids and wash the trucks out in the shipping area, that can be lower quality water. The main issue there is to protect the workers; you don’t want them to be exposed to contaminated water. You have to make sure the water is safe for human exposure.”
Water Recycling Controversy
While water reuse in the food and beverage industry is becoming increasingly more common (industry giants like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are on board), there is still a stigma associated with the practice.
“A lot of people are queasy about the idea of water reuse anywhere near food,” said Cotruvo. “But the truth is, with the right treatment methods, the water is actually cleaner than it was when they were receiving it directly from the tap.”
How the consumer will perceive water reuse is also a concern. That is why the guide is so important, said Cotruvo.
“The more companies do it, the more accepted it becomes,” he said.
Many beverage and food manufactures are already using recycled water without even realizing it. In communities where water reuse is happening at the municipal level, the water being used at the plant is in a sense “recycled” as soon as it comes out of the tap.
Giving companies and consumers a better understanding about the nature of water reuse is the main purpose of the guide.
“We want to communicate to the beverage and food industry that this is doable,” said Cotruvo. “We want this to be an educational tool for thousands of facilities out there that says, yes, they can recycle water and here’s a step-by-step approach. If you follow these steps you’ll get there.”