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Drivers, Successes, Challenges and Opportunities for Onsite Industrial Water Reuse: A Path Forward for Collaboration and Growth

Project: 13-04
Type: White Paper
Year Released: 2016

Program: Principal
Total Investment: $399,310 (Cash: $175,000, In-Kind cash and service: $224,310)

Principal Investigator: Joan Oppenheimer, MWH


Industrial reuse continues to gather momentum. An increase in wastewater disposal and energy costs as well as water scarcity drive many industries to implement water reuse in their facilities, thereby improving their bottom line, attracting environmentally aware customers, and protecting their business from water supply variations .

Industrial water reuse can be broken down into two key categories:

  • External water reuse supply, and
  • Internal (onsite) water reuse

In the first water reuse category, water is supplied by external producers, primarily by municipal water and wastewater utilities. The focus of this project is the second water reuse category: water is being used, treated, and reused onsite. This type of reuse is becoming one of the most adaptable approaches by industries. However, identification of those industry sectors and the best opportunities for onsite water reuse is required to encourage new industries and increase the implementation of water reuse in the industrial sector.

Goals and Objectives

The project will:

  • Complete a desktop analysis of current onsite industrial water reuse practices by industry sector. The goal of the analysis is to provide a preliminary prioritization of the industry sectors that have the best opportunities to increase onsite water reuse practices.
  • Confirm the preliminary prioritization list by reaching out to industry leaders from each sector to solicit first hand input on opportunities and challenges to increase onsite water reuse.
  • Develop a research roadmap for the WateReuse Research Foundation (WRRF) that identifies and prioritizes the best industry sectors, research needs, and opportunities to implement and promote onsite water reuse.

Research Approach

  • Task 1 consisted of a literature review to identify industry sector water needs, available water reuse/recycling technologies and water resource management tools.
  • Task 2 consisted of outreach to vendors of recycling technologies in order to create a database that captures the environmental, mechanical, and cost constraints of eight general reuse categories (cooling/boilers, co-gen/energy recovery, process, conveyance, cleaning, environmental controls, sanitation, irrigation) as well as industry-specific source to reuse application issues.
  • Task 3 identified industrial trade organizations and public/private entities that unite industries and municipalities around water sustainability practices and provide a hierarchical review of these organizations while summarizing the types of resources, metrics, and tools they provide relative to water reuse/recycling.
  • Task 4 incorporated water reuse/recycling study findings of public private partnerships for industrial water best management practices, such as the task Force assembled by the California Department of Water Resources and the California Urban Water Conservation Council.
  • Task 5 reviewed the 2012 EPA Guidelines for Water Reuse and relevant federal and state regulations to summarize industrial reuse regulatory requirements and explore how industrial wastewater discharge or clean water intake regulations might serve as triggers of greater future industrial recycling efforts.
  • Task 6 consisted of a survey of industrial sector representatives in order to obtain information to augment the sector-specific water reuse/recycling information collected from prior tasks.
  • Task 7 consisted of a workshop with the industry sector participants, creating a discussion forum with an end goal of developing a roadmap for water reuse/recycling as a solution to water scarcity issues as they apply to the different industrial sectors and clarify identified knowledge gaps and uncertainties that preclude installation of water reuse/recycling technologies.

Findings and Conclusions

A key driver of on-site reuse/recycling implementation in regions with adequate and inexpensive source water occurs when there is a narrowing of the gap between the treatment needs to adhere to wastewater discharge requirements and those to reuse or recycle the water. When this gap sufficiently narrows to demonstrate at least a 2- to 3-year return on investment (ROI), reuse/recycling opportunities convert to project implementation. Water reuse adaptation varies widely across industrial sectors and is highly dependent on site-specific situations. Readily implementable reuse opportunities requiring lower capital investment are usually installed first (e.g., cooling tower makeup water), and studies for additional reuse opportunities are delayed or not implemented at full scale until the cost of treatment modifications will provide a reasonable ROI.

Cooling is the most common industrial reuse option because of its high water demand, relatively low water quality required, ease with which the practice may be applied to different types of industries, and simplicity of implementation. There is little or no evidence of applications for direct use of reclaimed water within products, as this typically requires the greatest amount of treatment in order to alleviate product manufacturing risks or carries unacceptable public health and safety concerns. Water reclamation is, however, applied in product processing steps such as cleaning and rinsing. Drivers of water reuse for individual industrial sectors are provided in the report.

Many factors must be considered during the decision process for implementation of on-site water reuse/recycling at an industrial facility. Each of these factors can be grouped under one of the following four categories: (1) sustainable, (2) technological, (3) regulatory, and (4) economic. Depending on the disposition of these factors relative to the facility’s geographical setting, management culture, facility infrastructure, local governance policies, and water quality treatment needs, they will function as either a driver or a challenge for developing on-site water reuse/recycling capabilities.

Membrane treatment is a foundation for many water reuse processes that must handle high salts or recalcitrant organics. Pretreatment requirements are driven by the need to prevent unacceptable membrane fouling, and post-treatment is utilized to remove additional contaminants that persist within the process permeate. The biggest deterrent to on-site water reuse/recycling implementation is demonstrating adequate ROI (2–3 years) because of the undervaluation of source water supplies and treatment residual disposal issues.

In terms of the generic water use categories that cut across industrial sectors, the easiest and most readily applied water reuse/recycling applications appear to be for irrigation, process-related cleaning and rinsing, and makeup water for cooling towers. The most difficult application is utilization directly in product production, whereas cogeneration is perceived to be an untapped application with a lot of future potential. Closing the loop on energy recovery when water is the carrier medium across the facility will yield water reuse opportunities.

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