Water and energy in the circular economy
David Attenborough brought the harsh reality of climate change into our living rooms on the BBC last week. Concern about lack of progress in reducing carbon emissions in the UK has led to protests and chaos on the streets of London. This week, Swedish schoolgirl campaigner Greta Thunberg addressed MPs in parliament.
But Ministers seem less concerned about delivering clean growth and the transition to a low carbon economy than they do about uncertainties of Brexit. Not only has momentum stalled, but past commitments to deliver greater industrial resource efficiency are not being met.
The UK is at risk of failing to meet its 2032 target and the 2050 plan for full decarbonisation. Bio-energy has an important role to play. Scottish efforts to promote deployment of this technology are not being matched in Westminster. Now the Renewable Energy Association has published a comprehensive review of the potential for bio-energy to support the low-carbon energy transition.
British food and beverage manufacturers face regulatory pressure to modify their impact on the environment; this should also include targets for greater resource efficiency. Small and medium-sized food processors need support if they are to make sites greener and cleaner.
After Brexit, companies with established trade links will have to comply with Europe’s sustainability rules. To keep pace with EU legislation, leading food companies are finding new ways to handle their process residues. Smaller businesses also need to reduce carbon emissions on factory sites and from distributing products but many lack the financial resources to prioritise such investment.
Residues from food production have a latent energy value. Bio-degradable effluents, by-products and reject materials can be transformed into bio-energy. Now, wasteful disposal or destruction of such bio-residues should be replaced with a more circular approach, where everything has a value.
Equally, industry must address its water footprint. With concerns about long-term water supplies, water must be used more sustainably. Solutions can include systems that reduce the use of water as well as harvesting rainwater or recycling grey water on factory sites, even in production processes.
A litre of milk consumes 1,000 litres of water in the chain from farm to fridge. While recycled water should not usually be used in contact with sensitive raw materials such as fresh milk, other uses are possible. On one of our current projects, water will be recycled for irrigation. Recycling water after extracting bio-energy from organic residues also offers a competitive advantage.
A new emphasis on resource efficiency should infuse business culture in future, with terms like ‘clean-tech’ or ‘water smart’ becoming as widely used as terms like ‘artificial intelligence’.
Policy levers must include tougher targets for reducing fossil fuel and water use, alongside a carbon tax, with direct incentives for smaller factory sites, for example loans at preferential rates for SMEs that invest in on-site water re-use and low-carbon solutions. Greater transparency on how British companies are reducing their water use and carbon emissions should also be mandatory.
Food processing companies are investing in innovative extraction of latent energy from process residues. This can be combined with re-using water to reduce their water footprint, reducing water treatment costs, while the biogas generated provides renewable heat or power to factory sites and fuel for HGV trucks that transport food across the supply chain.
Our modular systems can help businesses to recycle and re-use some of the water consumed in food processing. As the food and drink industry faces the uncertainties ahead, it needs to be seen to deploy resources more efficiently. It should put grey water re-use and decentralised bio-energy generation at the forefront of its efforts to de-carbonise and future-proof manufacturing sites.
To find out more, please join us on stand H31 (hosted by Isle Utilities) at the EDIE / Utility Week Live event at the NEC on 21st and 22nd May 2019.