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The answer to our water supply problem

17 February 2014

Bill Westwater, CEO of Xeros, argues the Government should do more to encourage manufacturers supplying cleaning businesses to develop new products offering lower water use rather than just advocate stable bills

Controlling water costs is a keen concern for cleaning sector businesses. The Government recently tried to address the issue of rising charges generally, with Environment Secretary Owen Paterson urging water companies to "look closely” at whether price increases were necessary. Whether we like it or not, essential investment in infrastructure and in water conservation cost money and this has to be funded.

A pressing and longer-term concern for all of us however, should be potential future water shortages. In addition to the obvious uses of water for purposes including cleaning and hygiene, we use more than we often realise, for ends including producing crops and clothes. Indeed, the Environment Agency says the UK now uses a staggering 50 per cent more water overall than just 25 years ago, while the World Wide Fund for Nature points out we are just 38 per cent self-sufficient and the sixth largest net importer globally. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) also believes the water industry is coming under increasing pressure, due to the growing population and changing climate.


Cutting our water usage

The only way to tackle the threat posed by facts like these is all of us using less water. If we do not reduce demand, including in the cleaning industry, we risk more rationing, higher bills and an even greater strain on the environment. One good reason for being frugal is it can deliver financial advantages. DEFRA says "using resources [such as water] more efficiently will bring direct benefits to UK businesses, including saving around £23 billion a year.” The department also says it is vital to "make our economy and businesses more stable, so we can grow the economy and reduce our environmental impact.” 

Despite this, using less water and energy tends to be unpopular, perhaps one reason why the Government could do much more to encourage it. The public backlash following suggestions that people facing soaring energy bills should wear more clothes and turn thermostats down shows consuming less is a hard message to sell. But reducing the amount of water and energy used does not necessarily mean compromising comfort or performance.

In the car industry for example, a change in legislation has forced the sector to develop vehicles not only more fuel-efficient but faster and more comfortable than their predecessors. This shows how compulsion by governments, unrelated directly to price, can help drive positive change and stimulate new technology adoption.

On this theme, the European Commission recently took a step in the right direction by announcing it was looking at standardising toilet cisterns across member states, in a bid to cap the amount of water they use. It is considering limiting water closets to five litres and urinals to one.


At a micro level, the Water Footprint Network claims businesses ignoring reducing water consumption will face various challenges in the years ahead. These include: financial risk, with costs likely to increase as water sources become scarcer; physical problems, as companies face possible water shortages in their supply chains or operations; and reputational issues – corporate images could be damaged if questions arise about organisations’ environmental responsibility and contributions to sustainability.


'Disruptive' technologies

However, while many cleaning industry products offering lower energy consumption have appeared in recent years, those using less water are much rarer. One reason is that few savings can be made in washing machines, for example, without impairing performance. We therefore need disruptive new technologies, encouraging long-term sustainability without reducing quality, instead. 

A good example is the washing machines Xeros produce for the laundry industry in which the use of water is largely replaced by polymer beads, due to the latter’s ability to gently agitate soil and stain from textile surfaces. Our products – commercialising technology developed at the University of Leeds – typically use 70 per cent less water and only half as much energy and detergent as conventional aqueous machines. Yet our systems produce superior cleaning, demand less time, and the beads can be used for hundreds of washes without losing their effectiveness.