As climate change continues and the incidences of drought increase, water is becoming increasingly scarce for manufacturing. But a new study by researchers at Penn State and UCLA suggests there’s a silver lining – businesses that use water can pivot to become efficient and more environmentally friendly during times of scarcity. of water.
According to the researchers, just as water is an essential ingredient for life, it is also an essential ingredient for many manufacturing processes. Water is often consumed in large quantities during the manufacture of many common products ranging from cars to smartphones to computer chips.
In their study, the researchers, including Suvrat Dhanorkar and Suresh Muthulingam of Penn State and Charles Corbett of UCLA, found that after periods of water scarcity, manufacturing plants that use water significantly streamline their processes to reduce their toxic emissions into water, such as lakes. and rivers.
An additional benefit the researchers found is that the process changes also resulted in reduced toxic emissions to soil and air. On average, the estimated reductions in toxic emissions were greater than 2.5%.
Dhanorkar, an associate professor of supply chain and information systems, said the study, recently published in the journal management science— is one of the first to turn the question of how industry contributes to climate change and instead ask how industry responds to climate change-induced events, such as droughts.
“Most previous research has focused on how companies negatively affect the environment,” Dhanorkar said. “We wanted to flip it and see how companies are responding to climate change. This opens up a new area of research that may, in the future, begin to examine not just manufacturing, but also how these climate change-induced events affect innovation and other economic factors like unemployment.
For the study, the researchers collected data from 3,092 manufacturing facilities in Texas from 2000 to 2016. The researchers focused their study on Texas because the state frequently experiences droughts and periods of energy shortages. water, and produces many types of products, including food, oil, coal, chemicals and metals.
The data included information on the weeks of drought experienced by each facility and the total amount of toxic emissions recorded at each facility.
“We found that water scarcity can incentivize manufacturing facilities that are highly dependent on water to improve their environmental performance by reducing toxic discharges, but only when faced with persistent drought,” Muthulingam said. , associate professor of supply chain management. “These effects have also extended to facilities reducing emissions by other means, such as in soil and air as well.”
The researchers said one explanation for the findings could be that water scarcity is causing businesses to become more careful about how they use water. But, as water is used in all processes, companies are also becoming aware of other areas where they can improve.
“Many of these industries use water at different stages of their processes,” Dhanorkar said. “So when there is water scarcity and you look at how to improve water use, it can also reveal shortcomings in other aspects of the processes that are not related to water. These companies could learn a lot about their processes, not just from a water perspective, but more broadly. »
Dhanorkar and Muthulingam said they hoped that in addition to stimulating further research on the topic, policymakers could also use the findings to inform future climate change policies.
Republished with kind permission from Penn State. Photo: The research found that after periods of water scarcity, manufacturing facilities that use water have largely streamlined their processes to reduce their toxic emissions to water, such as lakes, rivers.