Green Kaizen

Lean Green Wastes: Water

Last month, we discussed the lean green waste of carbon, and this month, we’ll focus the next: water.

From California to the Middle East, water is so scarce that over a billion people cannot meet their “water footprint” for basic needs like clean drinking water, sanitation, agriculture and the production of goods.   

The middle class will grow by three billion people over the next two decades. This fact, coupled with the rate of which our industrial processes degrade water, brings estimations for global water demand to exceed viable resources by 40 percent by 2030. Escalating competition and conflict for freshwater is guaranteed for regions with water scarcity to survive. In fact, many have hypothesized that third world war will be over water.  

As easy as it is to blame corrupt politicians and dry aquifers for our water woes, at the heart of the problem is our usage model.  In other words, water has been pushed into a linear model in which it becomes successively more polluted as it travels through the system, rendering future use impossible.  (If you’re curious why we can’t just “make more water”, read this.) This practice transforms our most valuable and universal resource into a worthless trickle, creating high costs for subsequent users and society at large, not to mention the effect it has on aquatic life, food chains, and ecosystems.

There are a few obvious solutions:  use less water, utilize water more effectively, and purify our used water so we can reuse it.    The first two solutions are easy.  The third, will take a re-evolution of our processes and products.  

Reducing waste and leveraging resources to achieve the highest value is what lean does best.   Zero waste is a core principal of both lean and the green movement which is one of many reasons why the two systems complement each other so well.   

As one of their Environmental Challenges, Toyota is employing lean methodology and kaizen to minimize and optimize water usage.  Water is used in a variety of processes like painting and forging during the production of automobiles.  Considering Toyota manufactures over 10 million vehicles a year, even reducing a small amount of water per car results in big water conservation over the course of a year.

An example of their efforts is the collection of rainwater to reduce the amount of freshwater used by production plants.  The strategy and execution for harvesting rainwater has been uniquely innovated by eco-kaizen efforts at every site in order to advance each plant’s specific operations and leverage the region’s natural assets.  Several examples of utilizing rainwater at North American sites are included in Toyota’s 2014 Sustainability Report (pg.99) as well as this document on water usage and recycling at Toyota Motor Manufacturing France (TMMF).   TMMF has a goal to stop using public water supplies between the 2030 and 2040.  

Due to climate change, some areas of the world have the opposite water problem, flooding.  Such is the case at the Toyota Burnaston factory in the UK.  One of five plants worldwide that Toyota classes as an ‘Eco-Factory’.  An intelligent water management system that not only deals with the wastewater the plant produces, it also helps protect the local environment from flooding.  


These achievements are necessary, but they are only one part of the solution.  If the water we reuse and recycle eventually ends up unusable and harmful to the environment, all we’re doing is delaying contamination.  The goal is to go a step farther than water purification.  To prevent contamination and create a system in which water circulates in closed loops, where it retains full value after each use and allows for repeated use. To operate sustainably (perhaps in perpetuity is better) requires obtaining a circular mindset and re-engineering production systems.  

This is an exciting time as there have been significant improvements in membrane-based treatments that permit continuous use and commercialisation through the separation of water and contaminants.  Contaminated water, such as “grey” household water and others, can be treated so effectively that it can re-enter the system.  One example is Singapore’s NEWater, which is high-grade reclaimed water so pure it’s clean and safe to drink.  

Scientists have been working on a solution to the challenge of mixed industrial water (containing chemicals) and greywater allowing for simpler purification.  A new source-separation systems reduces these waters from mixing in a plant so each can be reused and purified.   In Qatar, the Pearl gas to liquids complex has a water-recycling plant that can process 45,000 cubic meters of water per day without discharging any liquids.

Like Toyota, the first step is to understand where we use water, where we waste water, and how we contaminate water.  With a clear view of the problem, we can start with eco-kaizen efforts to innovate circular systems that purify and reuse water … in perpetuity.  Which is the ultimate zero waste goal.

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