Because water security’s worth it

Cosmetics Company L’Oréal is rolling out a ‘dry factory’ concept to reduce water consumption in its manufacturing operations. BlueTech Research chief executive Paul O’Callaghan caught up with Hans-Ulrich Buchholz, L’Oréal environmental compliance director, to find out more.

Global cosmetics company L’Oréal has embarked on an ambitious rollout of water reduction in its factories worldwide. At BlueTech Forum, which takes place in Vancouver on 6-7 June, Hans-Ulrich Buchholz, L’Oréal’s environmental compliance director, will deliver a keynote address on the company’s plants that have already been upgraded to meet the target.

Within the framework of its sustainable development programme, called Sharing Beauty With All, L’Oreal is committed to reduce by 2020 the environmental footprint of its manufacturing plants and distribution centers worldwide by 60%, from a 2005 baseline.

However, the journey was as much about changing mindset as upgrading technology, as Buchholz explains.

“Water efficiency is the basis to improve but it is not enough to reach this ambitious target. We had to think how to improve the reuse of water and how to close loops by developing recycling projects.

“The treatment and recycling of industrial water is quite new in the cosmetics industry. High quality standards have to be strictly respected to enable the use of recycled water in utilities.

“At one of the first internal presentations, we showed a video of the Canadian space shuttle where the astronauts talked about the value that water has if you are far from its source.

“Recycling every drop of used water is economic and, under strict quality conditions, technically possible and safe to do. We installed the first treatment and recycling plants and now we are rolling out the system worldwide.”

Treatment technologies

Buchholz says that as soon as the quality department supported the approach, the next stage was to find suitable treatment technologies to reach the specifications of water for reuse. “Each factory has a different type of wastewater and where high quality water is required, normally membrane technology is used.

“In our wastewater there are surfactants, grease and different types of polymers, so you also need strong pre-treatment steps and control mechanisms before membrane treatment. We learned a lot – how to ensure that we always have the right quality of the recycled water at the point-of-use and how to adapt each installation to the specifics of the wastewater of the product.”

“L’Oréal’s sustainability commitment is integrated within the Sharing Beauty With All programme. It includes a 2020 global goal to reduce total water consumption by 60%.

“We consider that only a part of the municipal water that we use, after further treatment, becomes raw material in our finished product, so the volume of water for utilities has to be reduced by much more than 60%. On average only a quarter of the water quantity that was used in 2005 for utilities will be available in 2020.

“With the concept of the dry factory we go a step further. Dry factory means that we reduce municipal water consumption to just two essential uses – domestic water use of our employees and for the production of water that serves as raw material for our product. For the rest of the processes and utility uses, we do not use any additional fresh water.”

Economic evaluation

Economics in water use are rarely conducted to a usual return on investment. L’Oreal’s driver is to reduce our environmental footprint to achieve the 2020 targets. However, the company found that there were more benefits than was first thought.

“There are energy benefits and management benefits for example. If loops are closed people and departments are cooperating much closer to each other, responsibilities are changing, you come from a linear water management to a circular water management,” says Buchholz, explaining how staff were fully engaged with the programme.

“Process optimisation was made along with material loss reduction for example. It is not possible to take all related factors into account at the start of the journey, but there are economic benefits to find.”

Hans-Ulrich Buchholz says water reduction plays positively; it reduces dependency on water, and contributes to local resource protection, especially in regions where water is becoming more and more rare. It helps to decouple growth from environmental impact.

L’Oréal has contributed from the beginning to the CDP’s water supply chain programme and in 2017 the company invited about a hundred strategic suppliers to report back.

Buchholz says, “We are awaiting their responses and then we go back with a tailor-made scorecard that includes aspects that are important for the improvement of the environmental performance of our value chain. The choice of the invited suppliers is linked to the importance of their supply on our water footprint.

“We need better technical solutions in a more holistic approach to face potential non-availability of water. And it goes further; ultimately we want to contribute positively in the regions where our industrial activity takes place.”

Connect with L’Oréal and other corporate and utility end-users at BlueTech Forum 2018 in Vancouver this June!