Water – a key resource

The steel industry needs large volumes of water for its production processes. All plants are therefore located in the vicinity of a ready water supply. 

Water is mainly used as a cooling medium in direct contact with the steel products (e.g. in continuous casting plants and hot rolling mills) but also for indirect cooling. But water is also used for cleaning of process gases, as a lubricant and for rinsing and flushing purposes during steel pickling. The iron and steel industry thus relies heavily on access to water of good quality, and in sufficient quantity, as well as ensuring that water outflows meet the standards for good water quality – water represents a critical ecosystem service for the iron and steel industry.

Within the steel industry, water is mainly used for cooling. The illustration here shows wire being washed by water jets. Photo: Stig-Göran Nilsson. Jernkontoret's picture collection.

Cleaning and recirculation of water

Sweden was already drawing up an Environment Protection Act in 1969, and the iron and steel industry commenced environmental improvements of their processes at an early stage, e.g. modern water purification processes were used as early as the 1970’s.

All Swedish steel companies are environmentally certified according to ISO 14001, incorporating annual environmental audits with a requirement for continuous improvement. A concrete example of that is an increase in the recirculation of already used water, thereby reducing the consumption of inflow water as well as the recovery of metals in contaminated water, thereby discharging cleaner water and, at the same time, enabling the reuse of valuable metals.
Read more about the environmental impact of different processes involving water and measures that cut discharges.

Cleaning of circulating water from a bar rolling mill. Photo: Stig-Göran Nilsson. Jernkontoret's picture collection.

National water strategy

Since January 2020 the Swedish Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation is working on a national plan for managing water resources more efficiently, and thus coordinating the business community's water management. The work will lead to a coherent strategy for efficient and sustainable water management. Jernkontoret contributes to this work through dialogue with the ministry’s coordinator. Jernkontoret is also involved in other projects aiming to prevent future water shortages, for example in collaboration with the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute and the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

The EU Water Framework Directive is "fit for purpose"

European waters are regulated by the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) which requires that member states ensure a good water quality, and sustainably protect and manage lakes, water bodies, coastal waters, and groundwater.

During 2019, the European Commission performed a fitness check of the WFD, an analysis to evaluate if the Directive was still effective after twenty years of implementation. The analysis identified areas of possible improvements. The Commission's conclusion was that the Water Framework Directive overall is "fit for purpose", which means that the Directive was not to be revised. The identified shortcomings will be remedied through enforcing implementation within member states.

The Swedish steel industry is heavily affected by the WFD and Jernkontoret was therefore actively engaged in the fitness check. Jernkontoret's view is that the Directive is still a very relevant and essential piece of legislation, however it would have needed to be revised to better harmonize the scientific and legal aspects.

The Swedish Water Alliance

The Swedish Water Alliance (SWA) is a collaborative network including the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Swedish Water & Wastewater Association, Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, Federation of Swedish Farmers, and Swedenergy. Five societal sectors that comprise member federations and a multitude of member companies.

The aim of this collaboration is to manage jointly the water issues that affect all five sectors, to elaborate common solutions both at EU level and nationally. The work is coordinated by Jernkontoret. Svemin (Swedish Association of Mines, Mineral and Metal Producers), Swedish Forest Industries Federation, IKEM (Innovation and Chemical Industries), TEKO (Swedish Trade and Employers’ Association for Companies Working in the Textile and Fashion Industry), Nordic Galvanizers and Scandinavian Copper Development Association, are also actively participating in this work.