Water is becoming increasingly scarce globally. Since our company also depends on the availability of water, sustainable water management is an important part of our environmental protection efforts. Our wastewater may also contain trace substances, such as pharmaceutical active ingredient residues. We continuously aim to improve our water protection activities. This includes adapting our practices to increasingly strict legal requirements.
Our approach to sustainable water management
To us, sustainable water management means obtaining freshwater or discharging treated wastewater without negatively impacting aquatic ecosystems. We are also concerned with addressing water scarcity. To determine whether a site is located in a water-stressed area, we apply a risk factor of the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas of the World Resources Institute (WRI). We want to reduce the environmental impact of our wastewater and make our processes more water-efficient. In the medium term, we will also take into account water-related risks that exist in our supply chain when purchasing important raw materials. In the long term, we intend to transparently map water use and environmental impacts throughout the entire life cycle of our products.
To this end, we have defined two targets: First, by 2025, we aim to lower our Water Intensity Score by 10% compared to 2020. Second, by 2030, we want to reduce potentially harmful residues in our wastewater below the no-effect threshold.
Our regular EHS audits at our production and development facilities also review site-specific water management practices. Our water management efforts focus more heavily on our manufacturing sites than on our administrative facilities because production generally poses a higher risk to aquatic ecosystems.
Roles and responsibilities
The Group function Corporate Sustainability, Quality and Trade Compliance (SQ) is responsible for water management. At our sites, engineers work in close collaboration with our EHS managers to lower water consumption and treat wastewater. Further information can be found under Environmental protection.
Our commitment: Standards and procedures
Our Group-wide Sustainable Water Management Part 1 – Wastewater, Sustainable Water Management Part 2 – Water Use and Sustainable Management Part 3 – Water Risk Management standards detail how we integrate mechanisms of sustainable water management into our management system. All three standards are based on the commitments we made under the Responsible Care® initiative. At the same time, our Sustainable water management principles set the framework for the three aforementioned standards.
Our Wastewater Standard defines criteria for assessing our wastewater discharges into the ecosystem. It also helps us to achieve our target as regards trace substances in wastewater from our operations. The Water Use Standard sets out mandatory Group-wide requirements for the responsible consumption of water. The Water Risk Management standard establishes a way for us to manage the risks that arise from direct or indirect water extraction and also covers risks such as contaminated rainwater and flooding. We perform internal EHS audits to verify that our sites comply with our three standards. They are all required to measure and assess the risks and impacts of the hazardous substances in their wastewater. Moreover, they must also analyze withdrawal and wastewater risks and comply with the respective requirements of the local authorities.
Water withdrawn from our own sources
For the most part, we draw water used for our production processes from our own wells and source drinking water from local suppliers. In doing so, we do not want water extraction to impair any protected areas, sensitive ecosystems or habitats. Our aim is to extract less water from our own wells than the amounts approved in our permits. At the same time, we keep an eye on trends that could potentially lead to sources being reclassified in the future.
The cooling water used for our production processes generally runs in a circular system. Depending on regulatory standards and the energy footprint, we sometimes use freshwater for cooling in a once-through system. However, this is only done in regions with high freshwater availability. For certain applications, we treat production wastewater and reuse it. In 2022, we recycled a total of 20.7 million m3 of water (2021: 23.5 m3 of water).
Using water more efficiently
We seek to minimize our impact on water availability in the vicinity of our sites. In 2022, we withdrew 13.2 million m3 of water in total (2021: 13.5 million). Local conditions determine whether a sufficient water supply is available. In our water conservation efforts, we pay particular attention to sites in water-scarce areas. To improve our water efficiency, we have therefore defined an intensity score – the Water Intensity Score. The score relates to the amount of water either purchased or withdrawn from our own wells at a site to the number of hours worked, while taking the local availability of water into account. The Gernsheim site (Germany) is excluded from both the score and our water conservation efforts because we must extract a minimum water quantity from our own wells in order to comply with regulatory requirements. In 2022, we lowered the Water Intensity Score by 8.6% in comparison with the baseline year 2020 (2025 target: 10% reduction).
Our site in Rio de Janeiro conducted a project to reduce water consumption by upgrading the on-site wastewater treatment plant and reusing treated wastewater in the cooling towers. After two years of implementation, the average annual volume of water that is reused is approximately 20,000 cubic meter/year, which contributes together with other water saving measures to a reduction of 33% of total water intake compared to 2020. Another example can be found at our site in Mollet (Spain), where the replacement of water scrubbers for dry technology dedusters in 2021 and 2022 led to estimated water savings of 12,400 m3/year.
In 2022, we generated a total of 12.4 million m3 of wastewater (2021: 13.3 million). This consisted of around 8.6 million m3 of freshwater, which we discharged into surface waters. 3.8 million m3 was classified as “other water” and was treated at external treatment plants or disposed of in an ecologically sustainable manner. We take extensive measures designed to ensure that our company complies with the respective legal requirements when directly discharging wastewater into aquatic ecosystems. Before we obtain a discharge permit, the local authorities review the profile of the local aquatic ecosystems on site to ensure that they will not be compromised by our activities. 54% of our total wastewater was discharged by three of our sites. Our Gernsheim site (Germany) discharges its treated wastewater into the Rhine River and our Onahama site (Japan) into the Pacific Ocean. The wastewater generated at our site in Darmstadt (Germany) is treated in our own treatment plants before being released into the Schwarzbach/Ried Creek, a tributary of the Rhine River. The volume of treated wastewater we discharge represents approximately 2,7% of the average annual water volume of the Schwarzbach/Ried Creek, with the statutory regulations currently in force serving as orientation. We are preparing for a potential tightening of the statutory requirements on discharging treated wastewater.
We have been expanding our central wastewater treatment plant in Darmstadt by adding a fourth purification stage. Its current treatment performance of up to 98% (2021: 98%) is to be further increased in the future thanks to activated carbon filters. We are planning to commission the improved plant at the end of 2023.
Residues in wastewater
We continuously work to optimize our production streams and purification processes in order to conserve water and minimize residues. An expert has been appointed for each of our business sectors to provide guidance for our sites. Apart from aiming to reduce the amount of pharmaceutical active ingredient residues in wastewater, we expanded our measures to include all substances with water-hazardous properties in 2022. All the relevant sites have their own wastewater treatment plants and regularly analyze their wastewater to check for harmful substances.
We also process antibiotic active ingredients on a small scale. To prevent adverse effects on people and the environment, the wastewater generated from these activities undergoes an additional purification process. Only then do we discharge it into the ecosystem, thereby minimizing remaining antibiotic residues.
When it comes to discharging wastewater, we strictly adhere to government regulations. However, even though we meet all applicable requirements, slight amounts of trace substances still end up in the ecosystem. Our target therefore goes beyond the stipulations of legal requirements: By 2030, we plan to reduce potentially harmful residues in our wastewater to below the no-effect threshold. To this end, we are undertaking multiple project steps. We completed the first step– identifying the relevant sites – in 2022. The next steps will be conducting a risk assessment for the relevant substances, assessing how high the deviation from the no-effect threshold is, and implementing improvement actions.
Assessing our water management practices
In addition to reporting on our climate action efforts, we also report water-related data to the CDP, which collects environmental data from companies once a year, evaluating their processes and performance on a scale from A to D-. In 2022, we were awarded a “B” for our water management practices (2021: A-).