Processing Magazine

Gauging industry’s role in water reuse

GE survey says consumers see industry as ‘responsible’ in at least several ways

December 1, 2012

Industrial conglomerate GE has released results of a survey of 3,000 consumers in the U.S., China and Singapore, indicating Americans believe large water users are most responsible for contributing to water scarcity, and that they strongly support reusing water to help the U.S. drive economic competitiveness and protect the environment. Yet Americans’ understanding of water lifecycles and solutions falls behind those of survey participants in other water-challenged countries.

Nearly 20% of the world’s freshwater resources are used for industrial purposes and nearly 70% for agriculture. Large industries (74%), agriculture (69%) and utilities and power companies (67%) are seen as most responsible for contributing an “extreme amount” or “quite a bit” to water scarcity.

Americans also see the connection between energy and water — more than eight in 10 understand that you need energy to deliver water and more than seven in 10 are aware that you need water to create energy. Americans expect energy industry leaders to demonstrate water stewardship by using recycled water to produce electricity — and believe this can positively impact cost and efficiency. Around 84% said smart water management can help the U.S. more efficiently create and use energy and nearly nine out of 10 (87%) Americans are in favor of using recycled water for power generation, more than any other application.

Further, despite the “ick factor” often associated with recycled water, GE says, two-thirds of Americans (66%) feel positive about water reuse. The survey reports that Americans also think that industry and government should play a stronger role in making water reuse a priority.

This is a significant finding, considering that 36 U.S. states face water shortages in the coming year and by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population — or 5.3 billion people — will be vulnerable to water shortages. “Population growth, rapid industrialization and accelerated urbanization are driving the need for water reuse,” said Heiner Markhoff, president and CEO — water and process technologies for GE Power & Water.

While the majority of Americans hesitate at the concept of “toilet-to-tap” recycling, more than 80% of Americans surveyed indicated that they support using recycled water for many “toilet-to-turf” uses — activities that require significant amounts of non-potable water, such as agricultural irrigation, power generation, landscaping, industrial processing and manufacturing and car washing.

More education needed

Americans’ understanding of the water lifecycle and solutions lags behind that of those surveyed in China and Singapore. For example, 31% of Americans don’t know where their water comes from, compared to only 14% of those in China and 15% of those in Singapore.

In fact, Americans are significantly uninformed about their water supply — where their water comes from, how it is cleaned or disposed of and the major solutions for water scarcity — when compared to peers in China and Singapore, who also face shortages. However, those who had greater understanding of the water lifecycle were more supportive of solutions such as reuse, demonstrating that greater engagement and support for addressing future water shortages is achievable through education.

• Studies have shown that Americans feel water is the single most important service they receive — beating electricity and heat — yet three out of 10 (31%) don’t know where their water comes from, compared with about one out of 10 in China and Singapore. Less than half know how water is cleaned for community use (47%) and how their water is disposed after it’s been used (49%).

• Consumers in both China and Singapore demonstrated far greater understanding of water cycles and terminology than Americans — by nearly 20% on most topics.

• When asked about a series of terms relating to water, Americans had the least familiarity with the terms recycled water (60%) and water reuse (51%). Conversely, more than eight of 10 respondents in China were familiar with these terms, and feel more positive about them.

Despite a lack of understanding of water, Americans are clearly concerned about water scarcity and the availability and quality of water for the future. The survey shows Americans will support using recycled water for many non-drinking uses, which currently use a large volume of freshwater — and believe we should do so to maintain economic growth. In fact, many are willing to pay a bit more now to ensure clean water down the line.

Americans are generally clear in their understanding that energy and water resources are closely connected and must be treated as such in a resource-constrained world. They overwhelmingly believe it is important for those involved in power generation and delivery to protect water resources, which can also positively impact cost and efficiency. Water reuse is seen as a key practice for the industry to combat scarcity, and in fact, utilities and power companies should be the biggest users of recycled water — more so than any other group.

Additionally, Americans are looking to national government to take the lead to advance water reuse. Eight in 10 (84%) Americans believe protection of water resources should be a national priority. However, Americans are willing to do more than just call on the national government; they will open their pocketbooks as well.