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How Birla Cellulose is Reducing MMC Fibers’ Water Impact

Water is a precious natural resource that is key to survival and also a shared resource required for various activities such as agriculture, sanitation and hygiene. It’s also an integral part of the apparel supply chain. Producing man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCF) like viscose and modal is a water intensive wet spinning process.

As part of Birla Cellulose’s sustainability strategy, conserving natural resources is at the top of the agenda. Birla Cellulose is on a mission to halve its water consumption by 2025 compared to a 2015 baseline. As of 2022, the fiber manufacturing company has achieved a 45 percent reduction, and it is investing in both in-house innovation for maximizing recycling as well as state-of-the-art technologies for improving water use efficiency to set itself up for further progress in the coming years. Birla Cellulose believes it is the lowest water consumer for viscose manufacturing processes globally.

Water conservation has been an effort over the 75 years since Birla Cellulose began and is being optimized with increased productivity of lines. Once its factory opened, migrant workers flocked to the area for job opportunities, and it became clear that water availability needed to be protected for the growing population and increased agricultural activities. This thought was nurtured over the years, and in 2015 more stringent targets were set to formalize and accelerate the efforts.

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As a responsible operator, Birla is aiming to achieve reduction beyond the set target of 50 percent. “In line with the commitment to SDGs 6 and 12, reducing water consumption is high in our agenda,” said Surya Valluri, Chief Sustainability Officer for Birla Cellulose within Aditya Birla Group. SDG 6 covers water availability and sustainable management, while 12 is centered on responsible consumption and production.

“As a culture, it has been propagated throughout the organization that water conservation is not reduction alone. It’s the larger cause towards society, towards meeting those goals,” said Valluri. “So, every single person in the operations is quite aware and aligned with the goal that we will be meeting the set SDGs.”

This company-wide mindset shift includes using water as a KPI across its operations. And water conservation supports Birla’s guiding principle of the four Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle and regenerate.

Water recycling initiatives

Among Birla’s water conservation initiatives is water recycling. The company has segregated water input and outflow streams. Depending on the quality of used water, some is fit to go directly back into processes, while some streams undergo preliminary physical treatments like filtration before recycling and others undergo reverse osmosis to remove dissolved salts before being recycled for production.

Another initiative for Birla is zero-liquid discharge (ZLD), in which between 92 to 95 percent of wastewater is recovered. Despite the benefits from a water management perspective, this comes with a sustainability side effect of high energy use. Valluri noted, “ZLD may not be the most optimal solution because of its energy dependency.” As an alternative, Birla is considering minimum-liquid discharge, in which a significant portion of water is recycled and then a small amount of water is discharged, meeting not only the regulatory norms but the benchmark EU BAT and ZDHC wastewater guidelines.

To propel its water conservation efforts, Birla is investing in research and development, which is working extensively for various sustainability solutions for the business, with water conservation being the key focus area. R&D teams at the business level support the site teams with their own innovative solutions but also work very closely with various innovators whose solutions are tailor made to unit-specific requirements.

Birla Cellulose is also seeking out and adopting technologies that require less water, lowering consumption needs from the start. Additionally, it is also looking to leverage alternative water sources like sewage. Water harvesting—such as collecting water into reservoirs during monsoons—helps Birla conserve water and sustain operations during dry seasons.

As a part of its sustainability journey, Birla Cellulose is also very focused on circularity. Birla Cellulose’s Liva Reviva fibers are created with 30 percent textile waste, giving them a lower water consumption profile. The company is currently undergoing a life cycle assessment to quantify its water saving efforts as well as the entire impact of Liva Reviva fibers.

Aside from water reduction, Birla’s man-made cellulosic fibers support a healthier marine environment because they are biodegradable. Any microfibers released from MMCF textiles will break down, whereas synthetics cannot biodegrade and thus remain in bodies of water. “MMCF is a water-intensive fiber, but it has very good credentials in terms of sustainability,” said Valluri.

Click here to learn more about Birla Cellulose.