Audi recently announced that it wants to cut its water consumption in half by 2035. That’s a much bigger task than it sounds like, but the company seems to have a fairly solid plan on how to achieve it.
“Our aim is to drastically reduce our freshwater consumption and cut the water consumption per produced vehicle in half by 2035.” Peter Kössler, Board Member for Production and Logistics. “Where possible, we are already using recycled water that has been used multiple times in the cycle and treated. Our vision is to have closed water cycles at all our production sites.”
Water wasn’t the first thing I thought about when I think of the environmental issues that can accompany vehicle production, but it’s important to a number of processes. Audi says it uses a lot of water for the paint shop and leak testing of new vehicles. Automotive World says that it takes 39,000 gallons of water to produce a car, with one of the biggest issues being painting. The paint itself doesn’t use a lot of water, but cleaning equipment regularly to keep painting working properly uses a ton of water. Even worse, that water that was used to clean up the painting equipment all ends up contaminated and needs to be disposed of as toxic waste.
At the same time, demand for water is on the way up. 2.2 billion people worldwide do not have regular access to clean water, and the United Nations estimates that the demand for drinking water may increase by 55% by 2050. If this were a uniform problem everywhere, it would be easier to manage, but some places have much better access to clean water than others. For example, deserts have a lot less water to spare than places that get a lot of rain.
Audi factored all this in as it developed a plan to cut back on its net water consumption. First, it assessed the different places that the company operates, taking into consideration the availability of water regionally. Then, it decided to go through the expenses in those places first. That way, the first efforts the company undertakes will have the greatest positive impacts.
Audi Mexico was the first place the company eliminated wastewater, and has been doing that since 2018. A treatment facility takes the wastewater, treats it, and sends it back to the plant. The plant then uses the water again as service water, reuses it in production, or uses it to water the green spaces on the plant premises.
Audi is now working on doing this again in Neckarsulm, Germany. The plan is to create a completely closed water loop with a nearby water treatment plant, but it needs to do a lot of testing to make sure that the water is up to quality to be reused again. Currently, the water returns to a portion of the plant with a series of filters and membranes, where the water is tested at every step. The final product of processed water is now being tested every two weeks, allowing for the company to know exactly how good the process is working, and how to improve it further.
If the tests are all successful, construction of the new water supply facility is scheduled to start in 2022, and the plant will achieve a closed water cycle starting in 2025. The company is also working on similar projects at other plants around the world, some in early implementation and others in planning.
One other thing it does is collect rainwater when it can. At Audi Mexico, they collect rainwater into a reservoir with a capacity of 240,000 cubic meters on the plant premises. It fills up during the rainy season, and then serves some of the plant’s water needs until it’s depleted again. The company is also doing this at one other German location, and has plans for other sites in the coming years.
By adding up the impacts of reducing water usage (where possible), recycling water, using rainwater, and avoiding the use of drinking water, it really starts to make a difference.
Why This Matters
I grew up in the southwest US where water is a relatively scarce resource. When I was a teenager, I went on my first trip into the midwest, where things are much greener. One afternoon, I decided to walk up a small creek and look around at some farms in the area. Near the creek, I saw some pipes coming out of the field, dumping water in the creek. I was curious where this water was coming from, and saw a guy working in the field. I asked him what was up with the pipes, and he was initially confused by my question.
“The pipes?” he said. “What pipes?”
“The ones that dump water into the arroyo.” I replied, using a Spanish word for dry washes that I was more accustomed to in New Mexico.
“The what?” he asked.
“The, uh, the creek.” I replied. “The pipes dump water into the creek. Why do you dump water in the creek?”
“OH! Yeah, we have too much water here and it will make the plants rot if we don’t get rid of it.”
The idea of a place having too much water blew my mind. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California are always taking each other to court over water. The Colorado river, in particular, is constantly fought over, while states sometimes accuse each other of “slant drilling” for the other state’s ground water the same way that southwest Asian countries do over oil.
In places where there’s abundant water, I can see how readers would think it’s not that big of a deal. In some areas, they’re right. People pay to get rid of the stuff, and governments build elaborate structures to keep it from piling up too much to kill people. In other places, people fight over it because it’s needed drinking and agriculture. If some foreign company comes into town and uses as much of it as it would where there’s an abundance or overabundance of it, people and animals suffer.
Featured image by Audi