According to UNICEF, a United Nations agency responsible for providing humanitarian and development aid to children around the world, more than 4 billion people – nearly two-thirds of the world’s population – currently experience acute water scarcity for at least one month each year. And by 2030, 700 million people could face displacement due to water scarcity caused by climate change and other environmental factors. As water scarcity threatens the well-being of the ecosystem and the lives of many people in it, preserving water as a renewable resource is imperative.
It is a huge problem and its solution is fraught with challenges. One factor stressing our planet’s current and future freshwater stores that consumer habits can reflect? In hopes of reducing water scarcity in the future, though, some brands and environmentalists are turning to rainwater as a reliable and renewable water source, particularly to supply the bottled water industry.
Roughly 75 percent of our bottled water supply today comes from terrestrial sources, such as springs and wells. But according to environmental experts, harvested rainwater is one of the most promising sustainable renewable water sources to take advantage of.
What do you know about rainwater – and its use in our bottled water supply
A quick refresher on how the water cycle works: At its simplest, liquid water comes down to Earth from the atmosphere as rain or snow, then flows through or goes into the ground. The water is then reabsorbed into the atmosphere through evaporation from lakes and rivers, or absorbed by plants and then released. Finally, the evaporating water condenses to form clouds, and the cycle begins again.
“Rainwater harvesting is one of the main ways to conserve water supplies.” – Aaron Bachman, Ph.D., environmental engineer
Rainwater harvesting means collecting precipitation before it hits the Earth’s surface, and this water source has long been identified as a viable alternative water technology by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP), which states that Rainwater harvesting systems are readily available and can provide an opportunity to offset the use of fresh water. A 2020 study in Tucson, Arizona, also found that rainwater may be able to replace imported water sources in water-stressed cities and achieve demand maintenance by 30 percent. The study also cited rainwater as a potential urban rainwater resource – meaning that harvesting it contributes to as close to zero emissions of harmful greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as possible – under multi-year drought conditions with large storage volumes.
“Rainwater harvesting is one of the main ways to conserve water supplies,” says Aaron Bachman, Ph.D., professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University and director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research. “It’s been done for centuries in a lot of places around the world, especially in regions in which people keep a cistern on their roof. Rainwater can be used around the house and irrigate the crops.”
How Richard’s Rainwater makes harvested rainwater more accessible
Richard’s Rainwater, a Texas-based company launched in 2002, has been at the helm of collecting rainwater and using it as a renewable resource for its line of products: sparkling, bottled, and canned water, all made from plastic. Commonly cited as the nation’s first “cloud-to-bottle” water bottle project, Richard’s Rainwater has raised nearly $20 million in funding to date. While the concept of capturing rainwater as a drinking water source is not new, this brand’s team of environmental experts is doing it on a much larger scale. In fact, in January, Richard’s Rainwater opened the world’s largest potable rainwater harvesting site in New Orleans, which it reports is capable of collecting more than two million gallons of water annually. It also works with Mississippi-based facility Lazy Magnolia.
Richard’s Rainwater works by collecting excess rainwater in stainless steel tanks, which can collect up to 600,000 gallons of rainwater at one time. In areas with abundant rainy seasons, tanks are emptied and refilled several times a year.
“At Rain Water, we’re seizing the opportunity to use a resource that literally falls from the sky,” says Serena Dietrich, the company’s director of sustainability. “And when rainwater is harvested, it is in the purest possible state of water.”
And while Dr. Backman agrees that rainwater poses a lower risk of contamination than groundwater—which is exposed to soil, wastewater, urban runoff, and more—rainwater is not without risk. “Water falling into the atmosphere can meet gases or fine particles, which can contaminate the rain. Think acid rain. Up until this point, recent research had raised concern about the presence of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals”). potentially toxic), which have been found at unsafe levels in rainwater around the world. This is why companies like Richard’s Rainwater use reliable filtration systems to remove PFAS and other potentially harmful contaminants from harvested rainwater, rather than From the suggestion of anyone drinking rain straight from the sky.According to Richard’s Rainwater’s 2022 Annual Water Quality Report, PFA levels above a pre-determined detection limit were not detected in any of their products.
To ensure that the rainwater collected at their facilities is in its cleanest form, the team at Richard’s Rainwater is looking at a few other filtration processes. “After the first 15 minutes of rain, the air is completely cleared. This is why we refuse the first 30 minutes of rain harvesting—we want to avoid the small chance that any of that pollution will end up in our tanks,” Dietrich says. What is harvested after, she adds The first 30 minutes of rainfall is filtered and bottled for sale, noting that this is standard practice for any type of rainwater harvesting.
Richard’s Rainwater also believes in the importance of eliminating plastic waste. Today, people use approximately 1.2 million plastic bottles per minute, and about 91 percent of them are not recycled. Meanwhile, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the largest accumulation of oceanic plastic in the world located between Hawaii and California, has grown to 1.6 million square kilometers: an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. In an effort to avoid contributing to harm, Richard’s Rainwater is sold in sustainable, BPA-free, plastic-free packaging made from non-recyclable glass or aluminum cans only.
The obvious benefits of bottled rainwater production
To ensure that any form of bottled water is safe to drink, it must undergo a series of disinfection processes. Both groundwater and rainwater rely on ozone water treatment, which uses ozone (a colorless, odorless reactive gas) to eliminate contaminants such as bacteria, viruses, and metals through oxidation. This quick, effective, and chemical-free method of water purification has been linked to positive health outcomes for consumers, including treatment of certain types of dental procedures, wounds, and circulatory disorders.
Apart from ozonizing water, the disinfection between the two forms of water looks very different. Rainwater disinfection involves pre-treatment with UV light to kill most pathogens, then filters are designed to remove only what remains after the first step. Then the water is ozonized and packaged. Meanwhile, bottled water obtained from groundwater is often disinfected by starting with a chlorinated source of water such as municipal tap water, removing its chlorine content using carbon filters, and disinfecting it with ozone.
According to Dietrich, rainwater filtration does not include chlorine, which she says can leave an unpleasant odor or aftertaste. (Some researchers have even identified toxic and carcinogenic byproducts that can be produced when chlorine is added to regular drinking water.) However, it is important to note that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify chlorine as harmful in the amounts used. To disinfect drinking water sources.
Rainwater packaging also reduces water waste. “Anywhere between 10 and 40 percent of the water is wasted using other packaging methods,” Dietrich says. “The point to highlight is that the water use ratio – on average – for our competitors is 1.39 liters per liter of bottled water. That’s almost 40 per cent. Meaning almost half a liter of water is wasted in the process of filling a liter one to use. [When processing rainwater], We have few steps, so there is minimal waste. More than 95 percent of the rainwater captured in our products is bottled, from start to finish.”
How sustainable is drinking rainwater?
To summarize, drinking rainwater presents two significant potential benefits: it is a naturally “cleaner” source of drinking water and requires a less wasteful filtration process than groundwater. But Dr. Backman says there is more to investigate before we can officially consider harvested rainwater as a more sustainable option.
“If you’re looking for sustainable solutions, you want a relatively local source of water, you want it to be used sustainably, and you don’t want to overdraw so that it keeps replenishing over time.” -doctor. packman
For starters, Dr. Backman questions how plausible rainwater capture is possible globally (or even nationally), especially given that much of the planet does not receive consistent precipitation year-round. This, he says, can limit the accessibility, availability, and even sustainability of road grabs. Dietrich agrees, noting that expansion will be necessary to provide rainwater on a large scale. “According to Richard’s Rainwater calculations, it would take about 15 to 20 collection sites scattered across the country to make rainwater harvesting a decentralized national concept capable of generating about $100 million in annual sales,” she says.
Furthermore, Dr. Backman raises concerns about the impact of rainwater sources on other ecosystems. If you divert large amounts of rainwater into storage tanks, you prevent it from flowing downstream. This naturally raises a lot of questions, he says. However, he points out that this is likely not the case for Richard’s rainwater operation. “There are likely examples of this happening alongside large-scale engineered water extraction rather than just rainwater capture,” says Dr. Bachmann.
In Dr. Bachmann’s view, in an ideal world, a more sustainable water source would check three key boxes: “If you’re looking for sustainable solutions, you want a relatively local water supply, you want it to be used sustainably, and you don’t want to siphon it off so that it lasts.” in regeneration over time.” He adds that the source must also have efficient processing and distribution methods, which is not always the case. “There are only So “Many different local conditions need to be taken into account,” says Dr. Backman.
All in all, drinking rainwater isn’t the only solution to the water crisis everywhere, but initiatives like Richard’s Rainwater are making waves in the right direction to collect rainwater wherever possible. And when it comes to future water supplies, every last drop in the bucket counts.
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