Waterforum magazine - Resource Recovery as new business model

Resource Recovery as new business model: from cost to profit center

Interview Menno M. Holterman, Nijhuis Industries
Putting water on the map increasingly is a global objective. Not only in places that face water scarcity but also in the ‘land of plenty’, the Netherlands, albeit for different reasons. Here, water inspires yet another interesting chapter in the continuing story of what could well be termed, a complicated relationship. The aim of sustainable reuse of wastewater has produced a considerable wastewater technology sector in the Netherlands. Menno Holterman has been one of the ‘game changers’ in this sector at Nijhuis Industries, a company that offers ‘solid solutions in a fluid world.’

Holterman spots a trend with his worldwide clientele to no longer consider reuse of wastewater a stand-alone option,but to integrate it in their sustainability management. He is a firm believer in decentral solutions: keeping wastewater ‘concentrated and close’ as opposed to ‘diverted and diluted.’

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Water as a commodity

“Accessing water will more and more demand a ‘license to produce’ and a ‘license to operate,’ given the local contingents. Dealing with scarcity in areas where there is a specific demand for water to satisfy the needs of the local population and industry, involves treating water increasingly as a commodity. Consequently, politics play a bigger role than before; how we deal with water and how we cope with water scarcity will be key to a far greater extent than it has been over the past fifty years.

A strong advocate of a decentral approach
That is, if we want to be able to continue feeding populations world wide.” Menno Holterman is adamant about the importance of reuse of wastewater in fostering the transition to a sustainable world. “The process by which we reuse water holds a tremendous amount of value both for our customers and for the public interest. Recovering resources from a wastewater stream will allow for a circular use of a scarce good, first of all. But also of course for retrieving, and subsequently valorizing substances that would otherwise go to waste.” For years now, Holterman has been a strong advocate of a decentral approach.

“Collecting different streams of wastewater in one big central wastewater treatment facility, involves mixing up different kinds of waste that subsequently have to be separated again. Centralized treatment, as opposed to source seperated treatment, logically involves a much bigger effort, and hence costs, to recover resources from the water, treat and reuse it."

A growing awareness of the importance of source-separated treatment

Source seperated treatment and sanitation Holterman signals a growing awareness of the importance of source-separated treatment. “Customers worldwide first of all recognize the efficiency of sanitizing a waste water stream at its source and recovering its resources in the process. Hospitals for instance, abstract the water from the intensive care and chemotherapies from their wastewater streams.

They do this, simply because otherwise it would take a lot of different kinds of treatment steps to neutralize the chemical substances in these streams later on. Additionally, treating this specific water stream separately, enables the hospital to consider the benefits that such an isolated concentrated stream might hold in the shape of valuable resources. The same applies for instance to the process of extracting valuable and increasingly rare phosphates from urine.

Two important stages in the industrial process

This relatively new focus on resource recovery from waste and wastewater, builds on two important stages in the industrial process. First the notion that certain combined existing processes induce the recovery of valuable resources from waste and wastewater. And second, the developing of new processes to recover in a cost efficient way those resources that hold a great value for our customers.

These are important developments that lead to new insights and commercial opportunities. All due to innovative and new treatment and recovery technologies, often combined with other technology fields. The market for resources thus generates an incentive to make choices in processes.”

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Public legislation versus viable business cases

Menno Holterman believes that a public-private partnership in the water sector is paramount. He is more and more convinced that, to further developments in source separated cleaning and sanitation, both government and industry must play their respective parts and collaborate where they can. The sector today is facing a considerable commitment in furthering the sustainability of the water supply chain. Holterman however, is optimistic that parties in the sector increasingly understand each other.

Develop a business case that appeals to the customer
Furthermore, he spots a keen receptiveness to innovations with all parties. Holterman does not, however, confuse the separate objectives and characteristics of government and industry. “It may be all right for government to set a time frame of twenty-five to fifty years before expecting any viability from a policy, but this is of course far too long for most companies.

For Nijhuis Industries, it is important to accommodate our customer’s demands and to develop solutions that we can actually commercialize and improve by full-scale use around the world based on a return on investment of 2 maximum 3 years. Our role as a representative of the industry in facing the water challenges of the future, is to develop a business case that appeals to the customer and that will yield him a return within his own time frame."

Government has the power to create the right conditions

At the end of the day, if water reuse and resource recovery do not perform, legislation and subsidies will not seduce a company to invest. That is why we, at Nijhuis Industries, are constantly working at business cases for our customers that will convince them that caring about the environment and sustaining a circular water supply chain will lead to sustainable cost-reductions.” This is not to say that Holterman does not see a clear role for government in the water sector.

“Government has the power to create the right conditions for sustainable water management. They can induce the industry to reduce their water consumption and their water footprint and they can encourage the reuse of water. Enforcement through legislation is an indispensable government measure in furthering these goals. However, so are actions to maintain the rules and public incentives to seduce companies and citizens to actively take their own responsibility.

Cost-effect analysis

Water legislation also can play an important role in the cost-effect analysis companies make around their production processes. During these processes, many of our industrial customers pay up to five times for the water they need, that is to say for intake and delivery, make-up, the use in their production processes and for treatment of wastewater and discharge. Water reuse often means a considerable and obvious cost-reduction for these companies and optimizes their environmental footprint by reducing their water and energy use within their production facilities.”

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Our role in the world

Menno Holterman is outspoken about the role of the Dutch water sector on the global scene. “We should not harbor the idea that we can export to Africa and Asia tomorrow, our sustainable and viable solutions that we come up with today. Developing countries require a different approach as to the implementation of complex technologies and processes.

Robust solutions are key in certain parts of the world where people are not only in the process of acquiring knowledge and experience, but also have different approaches to water than we do. Offering expensive, sensitive and circular biological processes to customers who are not yet able to handle such innovative solutions, is like carrying coals to Newcastle.

Help and support local companies to create the necessary sustainable infrastructure

We prefer to customize our products to the needs of our clients and to local infrastructure, amenities and culture. That is why we not only sell our solutions to customers, but also hire them out as part of our own sustainability and cradle-to-cradle philosophy. That way we help and support local companies to create the necessary sustainable infrastructure until they are able to take over themselves. We create local consortiums of companies, ngo’s and other parties that function under our patronage.

Together we then tackle substantial water problems in a sustainable and structural way.

Nijhuis Industries Connect

Helpful in this process are the developments in the field of sensor technology and real-time data that enable us to monitor the performance of these projects from a distance. That way we do not have to be physically present all the time in Africa or Asia. One of our after-sales services, Nijhuis Industries Connect, offers customers service concepts that supply them with all the necessary information to optimize their performance under different circumstances.

Nijhuis Connect enables us to ‘stick to the customer’ as long as necessary and preferably 'for life' to guide him successfully through the process of transition to sustainability. We see it through together with the customer, so to speak, recognizing in the process that we owe our very existence as Nijhuis Industries to him.”

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Serving the people, municipal (waste) water as a challenge

Industrial wastewater can be as diverse as the companies that produce it. Communal wastewater on the other hand is practically the same all over the world. Nijhuis Industries aims its business primarily at industrial water management, 85% as opposed to 15 % municipal management.

“Influencing the behaviour of the industry in the right direction when it comes to dealing with water is much easier than seducing individuals to save water and energy as a sustainable good. It takes extensive campaigns to convince a wider audience to deal with water responsibly. This is difficult most particularly in areas where there is an abundance of water. We do however see a convergence and growing mutual understanding between industrial and municipal water management.

Combined solutions for municipal and industrial wastewater

Worldwide there are many developing areas where industries share water treatment plants with the local community, often in the vicinity of cities and villages. What you see in these places is a joint commitment and collaboration of local industry and government in achieving combined solutions for municipal and industrial wastewater, closing the water loop and recovering energy, nutrients and raw materials.

How to deal with water efficiently

Simultaneously, we spot in these developing areas a growing awareness of how to deal with water efficiently given alternate periods of scarcity and abundance or recurrent demographic upsurges. What you can see in Africa for instance, is companies selling their purified water to surrounding townships or villages but also companies helping these communities in treating their waste water themselves.”

Menno Holterman applauds these integrated solutions in which parties join forces to tackle major problems instead of operating individually. “We are facing substantial demographic changes in the next twenty years with population numbers increasing in the billions and millions of people relocating due to the effects of climate change, floods, droughts and water scarcity.

Keep the cycle as small as possible

Taking these small, and sometimes big steps is absolutely necessary.” Most of all though, Holterman stresses the decentral approach as the most appropriate in all these cases. “If you have water somewhere, you should try to keep it there and not transport it endlessly, for that costs energy and money. Keep the cycle as small as possible.”

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Waste (water) riches

Waste water often holds many valuable products. Take for instance, paper fibres. Abundant in our sewers, not easily degradable, and valuable to the paper and cardboard industry. The Dutch Water Boards are currently looking for ways to recover the fibres from the water with the aim of reusing them. It's just one of many examples of resource recovery from wastewater Menno Holterman mentions.

Produce ammonium sulphate out of digestate
“In England, we have been working with a slaughterhouse that produces ammonium sulphate out of their digestate. They paid £ 30 per ton to dispose of this waste product while we discovered that if we recover and purify it, the company could earn £ 130 selling it.” Nijhuis Industries also succeeds in making a profit out of waste and wastewater by transforming it into energy. “In the meat-processing industry, vast amounts of fat are released that end up in their wastewater.

Together with a client, we developed a solid and cost-effective method to recover the fat and convert it into biodiesel, which was subsequently used as biofuel for the plant's boiler.

Customers that became completely self-sufficient

So instead of buying a tank of heavy fuel oil once a week, the company could self-supply the plant with its own waste.” Menno Holterman stresses the endless possibilities in this area. “In the past years we have been working on projects involving simultaneous processing of waste and waste water. Often so much energy was released during this process that electricity could be generated.

We even have customers that became completely self-sufficient this way as to their electricity supply. From his waste and wastewater a maximum amount of biogas was produced to run his plant. Needless to explain the benefits are twofold in view of corporate sustainability and improving their environmental footprint.”

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