Opinion from global food and drink experts, Zenith Global

Food waste = Water waste

January 17th, 2013 | Posted by Ric Horobin in Environmental | Food | Water - (0 Comments)

Last week, the BBC covered a story about the amount of food that is wasted globally. Estimates are that around 30% – 50% of all food produced is wasted; this amounts to around two billion tonnes of food.

Now, that’s a lot of food, but the impact on global water resources was not widely reported. My earlier blog post about the export bans imposed by some Middle East countries gave some idea about the volume of water embedded “virtually” in products. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the organisation that undertook the study into levels of wastage, gives details of the impact this has on global water resources.

The total volume of water extracted around the world this year will be approximately 3,800 cubic kilometres , and about 70% of this is used for growing food. or 2,700 cubic kilometres. So, if between 30% and 50% of food is wasted, the most basic assessment would be that the same volume of water is wasted. 800 to 1350 cubic kilometres of water. That’s a staggeringly large volume. I can’t comprehend what that means in the usual colloquial measure of water volume – Olympic swimming pools (up to 540,000,000). It’s 182 time the volume of Loch Ness. And this doesn’t include water used in processing foods.

Now, clearly it’s much more complicated than this, because some foods require significantly more water than others, and there is no research on the type of food wasted, and some of that water would run off into the seas and oceans anyway, but that aside, the volume of water lost is huge.

What is interesting is that in most cases, the link to water is only mentioned briefly in the media. I think this will change.

Dr Ric Horobin

Water & Environment Director at Zenith International

I’d love to hear your comments and views. Follow me on twitter @riczenith.

Alternatively if you’d like to contact me directly regarding how we at Zenith International can help your business email me: rhorobin@zenithinternational.com.


Last year I discussed the water export bans from UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman. At BevME in December, I took that theme further and gave a presentation on my view of what the future holds. Here’s a summary:

There have been bans on exporting water from Saudi Arabia and UAE since September, and there is also now a ban on exporting produce grown in open fields from Saudi Arabia. I think this gives an indication of what the future holds.

Water exports are obvious. You can actually see the water leaving the country. The term ‘virtual water’ is now often used to describe the water used in the production of a product, and this is much less obvious. The virtual water in a tomato, for example, is not just the water physically in the fruit as it is exported, which is small. It includes all the water used to irrigate the tomato field which is lost through evaporation. A very rough back of the envelope estimate is that a single tomato can contain up to 13 litres of virtual water. So, the impact of ceasing exports of just a single tomato is that 13 litres of water are available for another use.

I believe that decisions like this will be made more and more often, particularly in Middle East where most countries are in the top 20 ranking of water stressed countries. It is not straightforward to calculate the virtual water content of individual products, but what is clear is that countries like Saudi Arabia are taking the issue of water seriously. At the Saudi Water and Power Forum in Jeddah last December, there was even discussion about stopping centre pivot irrigation systems. The impact on food production would be significant. The very fact that such a debate is being held gives some indication of the pressures on groundwater in this rapidly developing and arid region.

Dr Ric Horobin

Water & Environment Director at Zenith International

I’d love to hear your comments and views. Follow me on twitter @riczenith.

Alternatively if you’d like to contact me directly regarding how we at Zenith International can help your business email me: rhorobin@zenithinternational.com.

In March, I wrote about the United Arab Emirates banning bottled water exports; this followed a similar ban in Saudi Arabia. It sounds like it might be spreading. Oman has announced that it is also looking at banning exports of bottled water.

Dr Abdullah bin Ali Al Hinai, Acting Director-General of Industry at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, gave details of the export volumes and short falls via the Oman News Agency*.

There are some interesting numbers here… The Director-General gives figures of 14 million litres of bottled water exported from Oman in 2010. This is just 10% of the volume exported from the UAE in the same year.  I’ve had a quick look at water use in Oman, where the total water use is estimated to be 1.5 billion cubic meters of water every year, increasing to 1.7 billion cubic meters by 2020. So bottled water exports represent just 0.001% of total water use.

Now, I raise this not in defence of an export ban of bottled water, but more to highlight the point that other industries that use significantly greater volumes of water, such as the dairy industry, may be targeted next. Bottled water is an obvious example of water being exported, however the water contained in other products (the virtual water) is much less obvious but may become significantly more important as pressure on resources increases. The consequences of this could be bans on exports of dairy products.

As always, i’ll be watching the next steps very closely.

Dr. Ric Horobin

Water & Environment Director at Zenith International

P.S. I’m sure this and other hot industry topics will be discussed at Zenith International’s upcoming Global Bottled Water Congress taking place from 8th – 10th October in Barcelona.  You can review the Congress and book your place online here.

I’d love to hear your comments and views. follow me on twitter @riczenith.

Alternatively if you’d like to contact me directly regarding how we at Zenith International can help your business email me: rhorobin@zenithinternational.com.

*Source: Times of Oman. You can read the full story here.


A couple of weeks ago, the UAE banned all exports of groundwater from the country. The ban is aimed at protecting the country’s reducing groundwater stocks, clearly a reasonable aim. It has now clarified that this includes bottled waters produced from groundwater sources. This is effective immediately, although the government has given companies six months to comply.

I’ve been looking at this in a bit more detail.

The annual bottled water volume exported from the UAE in 2010 was 140 million litres. Not all of this is from groundwater, but let’s assume it is for now. I wondered what this meant in terms of the overall groundwater abstraction. There are various sources of information on this including from the Food and Agriculture section at the UN and also from the UAE government. Total groundwater abstraction in 2010 was around 2,000,000 million litres. So, the exports of bottled water are 0.007% of total abstraction.

Now, obviously every little bit helps, but I can’t help thinking that the virtual water component of some agricultural products which are exported is orders of magnitude higher. I’ll have a look at some other industries over the next couple of weeks.



Parts of the UK are now officially in a state of drought and the EA is warning that more regions will follow, with the situation being potentially worse than in 1976 (although I can’t really remember that…). I’ve been asked a few times recently whether this will impact the food manufacturing sector. So, what are the implications for industry? There are a series of steps water companies can take, depending on the seriousness of the situation.

Initially, water companies can apply for drought permits, which can allow normal abstraction restrictions to be relaxed to ensure continuity of supply – so environmental protection rules are relaxed in times of need.

Second come ordinary drought orders, which restrict use of water for certain activities specified in the Drought Direction 2011. This includes, for example, washing vehicles, using hosepipes and dust supression. In addition, the EA can restrict abstraction from rivers and groundwater where deemed necessary.

Finally, emergency drought orders can be enforced. These allows water companies to restrict water use for any use that they consider to be inappropriate. This is where they could legally stop businesses using water, but it is highly unlikely to happen, particularly for food and beverage manufacturers.

Of course, if you have your own supply, there may be practical limitations to what you can supply should groundwater or river levels fall considerably.

You can get more information on this from Defra here: http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/quality/water/resources/drought/

News from the Middle East shows the importance of water in the region. The UAE has recently banned the export of groundwater. The full press release is available here.

This comes about after a study by the Ministry of Environment and Water shows a decline in groundwater levels and subsequent depletion of water resources as a result of exports.

Reports from Qatar suggest it is concerned that this will result in rising prices for bottled water, as Saudi Arabia has also stopped exports of water.

I’m unclear from the press release whether this applies to companies using groundwater in beverages that are then exported, but the indications from Qatar are that it will. I’m sure this will become more of an issue in the future.

After a near continuous stream of new fruits and sweeteners, now it is the turn of new packaging materials.

The biggest of these innovations are Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle, Danone’s Bio-PET and PepsiCo’s Green Bottle.

Two more appeared in the 10th March issue of French trade journal LSA.

  • Danone’s Actimel bottles are switching to entirely plant based materials in Belgium, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
  • Brita is trialling a reusable 50cl water bottle which is wholly plant based and biodegradable.

 “Fini le pétrole !” commented LSA.  I suspect that’s still a long way off.


January 17th, 2011 | Posted by Richard Hall in Environmental | Recycling - (0 Comments)

I remain critical of UK national and local government for not ensuring uniformly high recycling rates of household waste, but I must at the same time acknowledge that rapid progress is being made. The latest UK Household Plastics Packaging Collection Survey by Recoup shows that:

  • 72% of HDPE milk bottles were recycled in 2009, substantially up from 57% in 2008.
  • Overall plastic collection for recycling rose by 22%.
  • 46% of plastic bottles were collected, compared with 39% in 2008 and just 13% in 2005. 
  • Kerbside collection coverage increased by 29% in 2009 to 23.3 million households.

Yet 10% of local authorities still do not offer any kerbside collection and 38% and do not operate additional “bring” schemes.  Moreover, the United Kingdom was ranked 21 out of 29 European countries for plastic recycling and energy recovery in 2009, behind all the rest of West Europe as well as Poland and Estonia among others.  The UK achieved just 25%, while nine countries managed rates above 80%.  So there is still a very long way to go.