Water scarcity is affecting more and more regions worldwide. Because we too depend on the availability of water, our environmental stewardship efforts focus heavily on sustainable water management. In addition, our wastewater may contain trace substances such as heavy metals or active pharmaceutical ingredients. Our water management practices and processes comply with all applicable water protection laws and are immediately adapted to tightened regulations.
Our approach to sustainable water management
To us, sustainable water management means obtaining freshwater or discharging treated wastewater without negatively impacting aquatic ecosystems.
To promote sustainable, efficient water management practices, we avail ourselves of the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) assessment tool. Our sites used this tool to evaluate their water management, drew up action plans and implemented them stepwise by the end of 2020.
We are also concerned with addressing water scarcity. To help us determine whether a site is located in a water-stressed area, we utilize tools such the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas of the World Resources Institute (WRI). A water-stressed area is created when the water withdrawn exceeds the amount of water renewed.
We systematically analyze our water withdrawal data and set clear reduction targets. Our previous goal aimed to lower our water consumption at sites in water-stressed areas by 10% by 2020 (2014 baseline), which we had achieved by the end of 2020.
We have therefore defined new targets to be achieved by 2025 and 2030 (see “Using water more efficiently” and “Our wastewater”). We wish to curb the environmental impacts of our wastewater and make our processes more efficient when it comes to water use. Going forward, we will also be taking into account water-related risks that are associated with key raw materials in our supply chain. In the long term, we intend to transparently map out the water use and environmental impacts throughout the entire life cycle of our products.
Our regular EHS audits at our production and development facilities also review site-specific water management practices.
Our water management efforts focus more heavily on our manufacturing sites than our administrative facilities because they have a greater potential for impacting local aquatic ecosystems.
How we approach water management
Our Group Environment, Health, Safety, Security, Quality (EQ) function bears overall responsibility for water management. At our sites, engineers work in close collaboration with our EHS managers to lower water consumption and treat wastewater.
Further information can be found under Environmental stewardship.
Our commitment: Standards and procedures
Our Group-wide “Sustainable Water Management Part 1 – Wastewater” and “Sustainable Water Management Part 2 – Water use and stormwater protection” standards detail the way we integrate state-of-the-art mechanisms for sustainable water stewardship into our management system. Both are based on the commitments we have made under the global Responsible Care® initiative.
Our “Wastewater” standard defines criteria for assessing our wastewater discharges into the ecosystem, while “Water use and stormwater protection” sets out Group-wide requirements for the responsible consumption of water as a resource. In addition, it establishes a way for us to manage the risks that arise from direct or indirect water extraction and also covers risks such as contaminated rainwater and flooding. We perform internal EHS audits to verify that our sites comply with these standards. All our sites are required to measure and assess the risks and impacts of the hazardous substances in their wastewater and to analyze water withdrawal and rainwater risks. They must also comply with the respective requirements imposed by local authorities.
Water withdrawn from our own sources
For the most part, we draw water used for our production processes from our own wells and source drinking water from local suppliers. We never do anything to compromise sensitive water sources. Nevertheless, we keep an eye on trends that could potentially lead to sources being reclassified as sensitive.
The cooling water used for our production processes generally runs in a circular system. Depending on regulatory standards and the energy footprint, we sometimes use freshwater for cooling in a once-through system. For certain applications, we treat production wastewater and reuse it. In 2020, we recycled a total of 22 million cubic meters of water.
Using water more efficiently
We seek to minimize our impact on the water situation in the vicinity of our sites. In 2020, we withdrew 14.2 cubic meters of water in total, with 700,000 cubic meters originating in water-stressed areas. This figure includes our manufacturing facilities in Mexico City (Mexico), Mollet del Vallès (Spain), Kankakee (Illinois, USA), Norwood (Ohio, USA), Savannah (Georgia, USA), and Hsinchu and Taoyuan (both in Taiwan). These seven sites must both transparently report their water use and identify the process steps that require a particularly high volume of water. Building on this information, we are drawing up action plans to help these facilities lower their water consumption. At our Taiwan sites, for instance, we utilize process wastewater for heating and cooling and also collect rainwater.
Our goal for 2020 was a 10% reduction in annual water consumption in water-stressed areas (2014 baseline). By the end of 2020, the respective sites had cut down their water withdrawals by roughly 27% versus 2014, which means that we actually exceeded our target.
New goal for 2025
Local conditions determine whether a sufficient supply of water is available. In our water conservation efforts, we are particularly concerned with sites in water-scarce areas. To boost our water efficiency, we have therefore created the "Merck Water Intensity Score" that reflects the amount of water withdrawn at a given site relative to the local availability of water and the number of man-hours worked. We have committed to improving this indicator by 10% by 2025 (2019 baseline). In calculating our Water Intensity Score, we factor in the local water stress levels as mapped out in the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas of the World Resources Institute (WRI).
In 2020, we generated 13.4 million cubic meters of wastewater. This consisted of around 9.2 million cubic meters of freshwater, which was directly discharged into surface waters, and 4.2 million cubic meters of other water, which was treated at external treatment plants or disposed of in an ecologically sustainable manner. When directly discharging wastewater into aquatic ecosystems, we comply with all legal requirements. Before we obtain a discharge permit, the local authorities review the profile of the local aquatic ecosystems to ensure that they will not be compromised by our activities. Approximately 50% of our total wastewater was discharged by three of our sites. Our Gernsheim site in Germany discharges its treated wastewater into the Rhine and our Onahama site in Japan into the Pacific Ocean. The wastewater generated at our Darmstadt site in Germany is treated in our own treatment plants before being released into the Schwarzbach/Ried Creek, a tributary of the Rhine River. The volume of treated wastewater we discharge represents approximately 4% of the average annual water volume of the Schwarzbach/Ried Creek, which complies with all statutory regulations. We coordinate closely with the respective authorities to address and adapt to the increasingly stringent legal requirements for the discharge of treated wastewater.
Residues in wastewater
We continuously work to optimize our production streams and purification processes in order to conserve water and minimize residues. An expert has been appointed for each of our business sectors to provide guidance for our sites. For our pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, this pertains in particular to active pharmaceutical ingredient residues in our wastewater. All such sites have their own wastewater treatment plants and regularly analyze their wastewater to check for harmful substances.
We also process antibiotic active ingredients on a small scale. In order to prevent adverse effects, the wastewater generated from these activities undergoes an additional purification process before being discharged into the ecosystem, thereby minimizing remaining antibiotic residues.
New goal for 2030
When it comes to discharging wastewater, we strictly adhere to government regulations. However, even though we meet all applicable requirements, slight amounts of trace substances still end up in the environment. Our new target therefore goes beyond the stipulations of legal requirements: By 2030, we plan to reduce potentially harmful residues in our wastewater to below the no-effect threshold, a scientifically defined limit below which no negative environmental impacts are to be expected.
Enhancing water treatment quality
In 2020, our new industrial water treatment plant in Jaffrey (New Hampshire, USA) opened its gates. The facility will allow for the reuse of up to 90,000 cubic meters annually. This equals a water reusage rate of 80% and significantly reduces the wastewater loadings to the local municipal treatment works. Additionally, the plant generates energy savings of more than 500,000 kilowatt hours per year due to various process improvements.
Assessing our water management practices
In addition to reporting on our climate action efforts, we also report water-related data to the CDP, which collects environmental data from companies once a year, evaluating their processes and performance on a scale from A to D-. In 2020, we were awarded a “B” for our water management practices (2019: B).