Water shortages, leaking mains and drought orders have focused attention in recent months on both domestic and business water usage - and more importantly wastage. Kate Gallagher of the government-backed environmental advice organisation Envirowise looks at how UK soft drinks companies can benefit from greater water efficiency.

Water is now a scarce resource in many parts of the UK, to the point that the South East region has been described as a desert state, with less available water per head than Syria and Sudan.

Much of the media coverage about the need for water conservation has focused on either the water companies themselves or on domestic use, such as hosepipes. However, it is important to remember that businesses are responsible for around a third of all water use in the UK, consuming 1.3bn cubic metres of water every year, at an estimated cost of GBP1.01bn (US$1.89bn), according to the government-funded environmental advice organisation Envirowise. And with mains, sewerage and trade effluent charges on the increase, businesses are literally pouring money down the drain by unnecessarily wasting water.

The food and drink sector as a whole is one of the largest consumers of water in UK industry. According to estimates based on a survey of water use in the UK soft drinks industry by the Environmental Technology Best Practice Programme, published in Envirowise's guide Water Use in the Soft Drinks Industry, over 25bn litres of water are used to produce the 10bn litres of soft drinks that are consumed each year in the UK. The survey also found that water costs for soft drinks companies ranged from GBP0.39 to GBP0.75 per cubic metre, so water supply alone can cost companies many thousands of pounds a year.

While the majority of businesses in the sector are aware of a need to reduce their water waste, many are yet to recognise the business benefits that could be realised by adopting a systematic approach to water management and minimisation.

Yet the need for this approach has never been greater. Water supply costs are increasing year after year, and water companies and authorities predict further steep rises in the future. Supply alone can cost a soft drinks company many GBP1,000s a year and other factors such as wastewater disposal are also pushing up costs dramatically - potentially up to 15 times the cost of water supply.

By taking action, soft drinks manufacturers that have not previously examined their water consumption can expect to make savings on water and effluent bills of up to 30%. On top of this direct monetary saving, improved water sustainability can also lead to a competitive advantage through enhanced relationships with key stakeholders, such as regulators and employees and an improved public image.

Envirowise suggests a number of ways companies can set about addressing these issues.

The first objective for a company is to measure and monitor accurately its water usage. Many soft drinks producers are unaware of exactly how much water is supplied to their sites and crucially the quantity that is used. However, knowledge is the key to effective water management. Without knowing exactly how much water a site is using, it is difficult to identify potential savings.  Measuring water is a necessary precursor to control in the first instance. Second, it identifies areas where excessive amounts of water are being used, and acts as a reminder to employees of the need to reduce water use.

Rather than simply metering water input as a whole, Envirowise recommends installing meters on each process line, or on each water inflow point on a process. This provides a company with exact knowledge of water use throughout the site. Keeping regular records of usage allows the company to review the success of any water minimisation practice and helps to prevent irregular consumption.

Leakage identification and elimination is another key area. Leakage is a common and easily preventable problem. Regular monitoring means that leaks from mains water are more easily identifiable and can be repaired immediately, preventing inconvenient and potentially damaging flooding, lowering maintenance costs and potentially reducing water bills.

A good housekeeping policy, for example ensuring taps and hoses are turned off fully, is a surprisingly effective measure which costs nothing to implement.

Companies should also address their cleaning, washing and rinsing procedures. The re-use of rinse water is another method that can result in savings. This is a particularly important area for sites producing carbonates together with fruit juices, as Envirowise has found that such sites use more water for washing bottles than in the product itself.

Wash water is often flushed down the drain on the basis that it has been 'used'. Careful examination of the quality and availability of wash water, together with an understanding of water requirements elsewhere onsite, may reveal opportunities for re-use.

A good system of cleaning and plant washing is important if water is to be saved effectively. Fitting hoses with triggers is a simple and low-cost measure. However, some companies may wish to consider investing in air-cleaning systems to replace rinsing to cut waste further. Cleaning in place (CIP) systems, used to clean process plants in situ, can re-use final rinse water for first rinses and re-use concentrated cleaning chemicals many times for intermediate washing cycles.

The Water Technology List (WTL), developed and managed by Defra and HM Revenue & Customs in partnership with Envirowise, offers a real incentive for businesses to invest in technologies that promote the efficient use of water by offering tax relief through the Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme.

Modelled on the UK government's ECA scheme for approved energy saving products, the initiative allows businesses to write off 100% of investments in qualifying water technologies and products against taxable profits in the year of investment. For example, if a soft drinks company paying 30% corporation tax invested GBP1,000 in eligible equipment, its tax relief could be worth GBP300.

Businesses often see water as a fixed operating cost and seldom make a link between environmental responsibility and financial gains from water efficiency. But by investing in WTL products and operating a more structured and long-term approach to water management, savings on water and effluent bills can potentially exceed 50%.

This article originally appeared in Soft Drinks International. For further information on this publication, click here.

For more information on the work of Envirowise and to download its good practice guides, available to all businesses free of charge, click here.