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Water Scarcity and Chemical Manufacturing: Do You Have a License to Operate?

Honored Contributor
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Contributed by Jeffrey Whitford, Director of Global Citizenship at Sigma-Aldrich

In a world of constrained resources are you thinking about water use – specifically in your research?  If you answered yes, maybe you live in California, where Governor Jerry Brown has issued an executive order to reduce water usage by 25%, or maybe you live in another part of the world where access to water is a current or consistent challenge.

One of challenges that water conservation efforts face is a lack of incentive to conserve water.  There have been many articles written and even a series on NPR’s Marketplace about the low price we pay for water in many parts of the world, consistently undervaluing the resource.  And while the fervor of the alarm rises, our behavior is still not changing.  Without clear financial incentives to make conservation a priority, we have to take individual ownership beyond turning the faucet off while you brush your teeth, taking a three minute shower, or living with a brown lawn.

As a business, one of our most important responsibilities is to provide our customers with the products they need to complete their research, which requires that we maintain our license to operate.  You may ask what a license to operate has to do with water. As a manufacturer, water is a key part of what we do – whether it is an ingredient in a product or part of a manufacturing process.

As a business, Sigma-Aldrich utilized approximately 1.9 million cubic meters of water in 2014.  While this sounds like a lot, and it is, where and how that water is used is just as important and is part of being a good steward of resource usage.  Sigma-Aldrich also focuses on consistently monitoring and understanding where water is being used and the potential strains that exist on water infrastructure in the communities where we operate.

In 2013, Sigma-Aldrich reported a slight increase of water usage in high risk areas, from 11% to 12% of our total usage.  A majority of our water usage is in low risk areas, approximately 74%, while the remaining 14% is in medium risk areas.  A majority of our water usage is in St. Louis, Missouri, at the Production Campus responsible for the manufacture of a significant portion of Sigma and SAFC branded products.

Even with low financial incentives and a seemingly endless supply of water, since 2009 Sigma-Aldrich has saved more than two million cubic meters of water through efficiency efforts and by implementing a re-engineering program to rethink how we manufacture products to decrease the environmental impact of manufacturing in the reagents and chemical industry and ensuring that we maintain our license to operate.  We’ve taken this effort to the next level with an industry leading green chemistry quantification system called DOZN™, which captures the environmental improvements we make to products based on the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.  You can learn more about this system on our website by visiting

We all have a responsibility to think about how we use resources, but more importantly to think differently and to apply the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry in new and unique ways that challenge the status quo around resource utilization in research.  It’s the curious nature of research that can change the future.  The power of science can raise the bar.

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