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Less Water Means More Money

By saving water, Michigan companies discover new profits

May 2, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Sometimes installing one inexpensive new valve can save thousands of dollars.

When an engineering intern from Western Michigan University figured out a way to save E/M Coating Services thousands of dollars each year simply by recycling the company’s wastewater, Joy Neumann, the company’s environmental, health, and safety coordinator, said the proposed modification “was pretty much a no-brainer.”

For the strikingly low cost of $85 in pipe and a few hours of labor, the Shelby Township-based auto parts supplier could significantly reduce its water consumption, decrease the amount of wastewater it discharges to the Detroit municipal system, and save $6,200 annually. The minor change, which involved rerouting the company’s plumbing to reuse treated wastewater, also would enable E/M to cut chemical use by more than 20 percent, saving an additional $5,300 per year on compounds like caustic soda and calcium chloride.    

“They had maintenance doing it the next day,” Ms. Neumann recalled.
 E/M’s experience demonstrates that, even in Michigan, a state surrounded by the largest system of fresh surface water on the planet, investments in more proficient water use can make fiscal sense. In fact, across the Great Lakes State, a growing number of companies large and small are discovering that aggressive action to conserve water quality and quantity reduces their costs of doing business, enhances their corporate images, and increases their financial bottom lines.

Linking Wealth and Water

Courtesy Ford Motor Company
  Ford Motor Company is transforming its Rouge Center complex into the world’s largest sustainable manufacturing facility.
This promising movement comes as Michigan struggles to address two pressing issues that, taken together, seem polarizing: Ensuring the state’s bread-and-butter manufacturing industry remains viable in the global economy, yet sustaining the health of the Great Lakes, which will power them for future generations.

Policymakers historically perceive efforts to secure a clean, robust water supply as a potential drag on economic competitiveness. But mounting evidence from the factory floor suggests that improving water use efficiency pays off in the long run for companies, the overall economy, and the environment. Advancing water stewardship today not only keeps the resource strong and affordable for future business and community needs; it also can help industry operate more effectively and reduce costs, protect jobs, and enhance economic prosperity.

Most large water users in the state can improve their traditional water use practices and the overall effectiveness of their operation. But fully reaping the economic and ecological benefits requires innovation, investment and, as the intern discovered, thoughtful inspection.     

“We’re in the middle of the land of plenty, so water, as crucial as it is, just is not always on the radar screen,” said Bill Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group, an independent consulting firm based in Grand Rapids. “It is not typically viewed as a big expense. And it’s rare to find a company that tracks water use or that has any sort of metrics to measure use or conservation. Consequently, they don’t know how much they are using or what it’s costing them. Even though they get charged twice for every gallon — once on the way in and once on the way out.”

Success Stories
A handful of visionary business leaders are bucking that trend. Executives and employees at major companies like Ford Motor Company, Steelcase Inc., Herman Miller Inc., and General Motors Corporation have voluntarily begun to account more carefully for water that passes through their operation. They are discovering that more ecologically sustainable practices are compatible with bottom-line business goals. Consider the following:

  • In 2003, Dow Chemical Company’s resource conservation plan reduced water needs across its global operation by more than five billion gallons — including a two-billion-gallon reduction in annual consumption at its Midland, Mich., site — and saved the company approximately $15 million.
  • An audit of water use at one Michigan light manufacturing plant revealed the potential to reduce cooling water consumption from 19 gallons per minute to one gallon per minute and save the company $6,500 a year.
  • A Michigan packaging company slashed water use by more than 1.2 million gallons a year and saved $5,300 annually.
  • March Coatings Inc. invested in modern spray guns that allowed the company to reduce hazardous wastes by 7 percent, electrical use by 25 percent, and water and gas consumption by 15 percent.
  • General Motors’ Warren Transmission plant recently installed a new water treatment system that tripled the efficiency of its water use and reduced annual water needs by 1.2 million gallons. The company also cut costs by $2,200 a year.

  Sustainable practices include using vegetation to naturally clean and store water.
General Motors actually cut overall water use at its Michigan facilities by more than 15 percent from 2000 to 2003. The Pontiac Assembly plant, for example, slashed the amount of water purchased and sent back to the wastewater treatment plant by 52,000 gallons per year. The Orion Assembly plant dialed its water demand back 12 percent. And the Saginaw Metal Casting Operation began reusing more than 20 million gallons of treated wastewater every day, a change that also limited discharges to the Saginaw River.

“If you’re producing waste,” said Susan Kelsey, GM’s manager of environmental services in southeast Michigan, “you’re losing money.”

No Magic Fairy Dust
The drive to eliminate wasteful water use and, by extension, cut costs is leading more companies to closely scrutinize their traditional water use practices, often for the first time. Companies in water-rich Michigan typically pay little attention to how water flows through their operation. But closer inspection often reveals some remarkably simple ways to use water more responsibly and save money.

General Motors, for instance, conserved more than nine million gallons of water at the Romulus Engine plant, in part, by throwing a switch from manual to automatic on a critical cooling process. The company also built the water pipes at the Lansing Grand River plant above ground to ensure leaks are repaired immediately. E/M Coating saw the return on its $85 investment in new plumbing in less than five days.

“We just addressed a bunch of mundane kind of things,” said Carl Ozar, an environmental engineer at Ford, about how his company cut water use at its Livonia transmission plant by 27 percent between 2002 and 2003. “There was no magic fairy dust. We did some leak detection, made some repairs, and began tracking the system on an ongoing basis. But we’ve discovered significant [financial] savings. What we’re finding is that the initial purchase cost of water is not much. But the discharge fees can be substantial.”

Since 2000, Ford lowered its global water consumption by 17 percent — more than 4.3 billion gallons — due to an aggressive conservation plan. The company claims the program also saved millions of dollars during that time. That is because the costs associated with how much water an industry uses includes the energy to pump the resource, the various chemical packages to treat it, and the need to dispose of wastewater, according to Mr. Ozar.

Changing Times
Historically, heavy water use is not an issue in Michigan, which is flush with groundwater and surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes. Ready access to a world-class water supply — matched with the innovative spirit of America’s hardworking heartland — provided the one-two punch that gave Great Lakes states a competitive edge over the rest of the industrializing world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The region’s economy continues to rely heavily on extracting vast amounts of water to generate electricity, refine petroleum, and manufacture chemicals, steel, paper, cars, and other goods. But employing sustainable water use practices is increasingly important for the durability of the Great Lakes economy and ecology. Industry’s ability to compete and succeed today is measured not necessarily by how much water a company can pump, but rather how smartly it uses water and other resources.

“These [water stewardship efforts] have significant implications for our ability to compete,” said Ray Tessier, director of the worldwide facilities group at General Motors. “Competition in the global economy is intensifying. And we have to become more efficient and effective in how we use resources across the company. Innovation. That’s the name of the game.”

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