How to Understand Water Use In Your Restaurant: 7 Key Questions
Our Head of Projects & Consultancy Martina Dell explores the aspects of water management that might not immediately come to mind for hospitality operators and shares some advice for how to tackle this complex issue
1. How can my restaurant measure or monitor water use?
Consider conducting a water footprint analysis. This is an exercise that measures the amount of water used to sustain your operations (direct water use). For top marks, this can also be extended to include your scope 3 or indirect water use – it’s likely that 90% or more of your overall water impact will be from across your supply chain! It’s eye-opening to consider just how much water it takes to produce all that animal feed or food in general.
Completing a water footprint analysis at any level allows you to define a baseline and, from there, to set targets for reduction. Having these data and insights to hand can help you better understand where your real opportunities for reduction lie.
The issue of water management is vast and sometimes a real uncertainty on what to do or where to start can halt or slow action. We suggest you think ‘from the inside out’, starting with your own operations and expanding through your supply chain. It starts with you! Read on for some advice on how you can reduce water use.
2. What steps can hospitality businesses take to reduce water use within their operations?
Inside your operations: Efficient use
- Conduct a water footprint analysis as outlined above.
- Install low-flow taps and sensors, waterless urinals and low-flush toilets. Ask your suppliers about water-efficient equipment, such as dishwashers, etc.
- Train your staff to be mindful around water use and get them involved in identifying opportunities for reduction.
- Install a water meter to monitor your use.
- Ensure your equipment and property are maintained, repairing leaks and drainage issues, etc., as soon as they arise.
Inside your operations: Responsible treatment
It’s also important that your business isn’t having a negative effect on the water supply.
- Understand your cleaning chemicals/ detergents/products, etc., and speak to your supplier about eco-friendly alternatives.
- Ensure you have adequate fat, oil and grease traps in place to keep these hard-to-break-down substances out of our waterways.
- Get water onto your sustainability agenda – make sure it’s embedded into your strategy with clearly defined commitments and targets.
3. Why is it so important to consider water use outside your immediate business activities?
Whilst it is important to consider what you can do within the four walls of your business with regards to water stewardship, the real impacts of the industry are from further up down the chain.
From an ethical perspective, an estimated 2.4 billion people live in water-stressed countries. Particularly impacted regions are Central and Southern Asia & Northern Africa, and – despite having highly developed infrastructure – even countries like the United States are seeing water levels drop to record lows.
Water scarcity has a truly huge impact on food production! It is estimated that 70% of the world’s fresh water is used for agriculture – with a growing global population and continued push for economic growth increasing competition for this hugely undervalued but finite resource. Only about 3% of Earth's water is freshwater, most of which is unavailable for our use, either frozen in glaciers or ice caps or deep underground.
Despite the stated need for water in the agricultural industry, from a nature-positive perspective, poorly treated water can also have hugely negative impacts on natural ecosystems (for example, eutrophication) and on societal infrastructure (think fatbergs and inner-city plumbing!).
4. What steps can businesses take to reduce water use throughout their supply chains?
Here are some steps you can take to start reducing water use outside your immediate operation and throughout your supply chain.
Encourage suppliers and food manufactures to conduct their own water footprint analysis (ISO 14046 where relevant) and commit to a water management/stewardship plan.
Prioritise working with producers who act on water conservation in ways such as:
- growing organically with minimal inputs,
- using cover crops, local varieties or dry farming where possible to reduce the need for irrigation,
- rainwater capture and storage, drip irrigation systems and/or scheduled and well managed irrigation,
- using techniques like conservation tillage and/or compost and mulch to protect and maintain the soils moisture, and/or rotational grazing, which can enhance the fields’ ability to absorb water and minimise runoff, leading to more drought-resistant pastures.
Understand where water scarcity exists in your supply chain and evaluate whether you can provide support to affected agri-systems and communities through funding innovative or collaborative projects.
Care for your local water systems! Get involved through volunteering, organising efforts like river or beach cleans.
5. How can menu design impact your water footprint?
Like carbon footprints or calorie labelling, all foods at a product or ingredient level come with their own individual water footprint. This can ‘simply’ be calculated/understood as the number of litres (volume) of water needed to produce 1kg of product. See the graphic below for just one example – you might be shocked to see how much water actually goes into producing something as simple as a ham and cheese sandwich.
- Getting down to this level of detail when menu planning is possible, but difficult, and it isn’t always as easy as comparing apples with apples. Depending on the time of year, the growing region, the variety of apple, etc., the water use will be different.
- Generally, animal products (like meat, dairy and eggs) produced through conventional methods tend to require more water than fruits, vegetables and beans, resulting in a higher water footprint – yet another reason to consider serving less and better meat. The reason for this is that the crops used to feed livestock also require water for their production in the form of irrigation. Additionally, but in a much smaller proportion, carcass processing requires water as well.
- Another important way to consider your business’ water impact is to prioritise sourcing from production methods that use minimal inputs – such as organic or regenerative farm systems – and therefore reduce impacts on surrounding ecosystems, such as pollution or eutrophication.
- Seasonal menu changes have endless benefits, including reduced water impacts. Produce grown in season (like British asparagus from April to June, British berries in the summer months and root vegetables in the autumn) require fewer inputs all around, including water, energy and fertiliser.
- Sourcing produce grown in polytunnels can also significantly reduce the requirement for chemical inputs like pesticides and irrigation by protecting the environment and maintaining moisture. Unheated tunnels or those powered/heated by renewable energy have a lower environmental impact overall.
6. What benefits can this work bring to restaurants and other food businesses?
As an industry, as a species and most importantly for this planet as we know it, we do not exist without water. A major part of the climate change conversation, the water crisis continues to worsen due to the expansion of urban areas, population growth, pollution, etc. Water scarcity is already impacting food security, biodiversity and basic health and hygiene in some regions.
Today, one in 10 people lacks access to clean water for daily needs. Shockingly, the FAO predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the global population will be facing water stress and as many as 1.8 billion people will be living with “absolute water scarcity”.
Beyond the opportunity to reduce your expenditure on your annual water bill, there is a responsibility and a need to protect this precious and increasingly scarce resource upon which we all depend – for the future of food and, ultimately, the future of humanity.
7. Where can hospitality operators find more information?
- For more general information on water scarcity, you can visit the FAO’s page on water here.
- For UK based businesses, A Roadmap Towards Water Security for Food and Drink Supply is a joint vision for the outcome we are seeking across the UK food and drink industry as a whole: to deliver the Courtauld Commitment 2030 water target that 50% of the UK’s fresh food is sourced from areas with sustainable water management. The Water Roadmap also aims to deliver an important contribution towards UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 (availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), as well as protecting and restoring biodiversity, and contributing to Net Zero goals through the implementation of nature-based solutions.
- You can find additional resources relevant for UK hospitality from the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance here.
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