Innovation under pressure: reducing water consumption in Cape Town

With Cape Town facing an ongoing water shortage Virgin Active South Africa have been determined to be part of the solution, fast-tracking their commitments to have a net zero impact on the environment. We spoke with Managing Director, Ross Faragher-Thomas, to find out how the team have innovated in order to reduce water consumption.

What was the spark for reducing water consumption in Virgin Active health clubs and when did the process begin?

At Virgin Active South Africa, we had committed to net zero environmental impact by 2030. This means we’ve committed to reducing water consumption and waste; switching to renewable energy to drive down our carbon emissions and eliminating solid waste by recycling.

The drought we are experiencing in the Western Cape, and the subsequent city water restrictions, was the catalyst to fast track our water stewardship initiatives not only to reach our net zero goal but also for our 30 clubs across the region to remain operational. Our immediate response to the problem was looking at where we could make changes in our operations to reduce our water consumption, and to simultaneously put a plan in place that would steer us to a position of long term water resilience by going off grid.

Ross Faragher-Thomas shows Richard Branson around one of the Virgin Active South Africa health clubs

How did the team practically first start trying to tackle this?

It has definitely been a team effort! A Water Crisis team was convened and we meet weekly. Collective thought and action has given our interventions great impetus. We maintain regular dialogue with stakeholders such WWF and Green Cape. There is an absolute recognition that collective action is required, and this starts with our members, all the way through our clubs to our people.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  • We have re-configured plumbing in clubs with pools, to use the pool water for ablutions, providing up to two month’s supply.
  • In clubs without pools, we connected our hot water storage tanks with up to 20 thousand litres of water to our ablutions, providing up to a week’s supply.
  • Transporting run-off waste water from manufacturing plants to top up our pools. It is filtered and purified through the pool pumps.
  • Fitted low flow showerheads and taps across 30 clubs in the Western Cape
  • Introduced 40 rainwater harvesting tanks. During the dry season these tanks are used to store water we procure through donations.
  • Introduced plugs in basins to stop members leaving the water running when they shave.
  • There’s now instantly hot water, meaning there’s no need to leave the tap running for water to warm up.
  • There is hand sanitizer at basins instead of water.
  • Buckets in showers to capture the run-off water to use for flushing toilets.
  • Shower timers are a constant reminder to power shower.
  • Plumbing the condensate from air conditioners into our pools. We can get up to 5000l a day into our pools from this intervention.
  • Conscious consumer messaging campaigns to engage members and encourage them to reduce their consumption.
  • Closure of Sensation Showers, Steam and Sauna which has reduced water consumption by 660,000l a month.
  • Disabled the full flush on all dual flush toilets.
  • Waterless urinals.
  • Completed environmental surveys for 12 potential boreholes, and have drilled three.
  • Installing grey water systems at Western Cape clubs.
  • Procured storage tanks to store up to 20,000l of potable water per club.

It’s not just about what we are doing at club level but also in our own offices

We are working with WWF, and presented our measures as a case study at the launch of their Watershed Wednesdays. This initiative sees corporates mimic Day Zero in their office environments in a bid to highlight the harsh reality of taps that have run dry. We are hoping to drive additional behavioural change in our employees, and mark this weekly by turning off all taps on a Wednesday.

What were the main challenges faced and how were they overcome?

The notion that water is a single-use resource is antiquated. How we think about water and how we use and reuse water has to fundamentally change if we are to weather drought and changing climates. And the drought is the catalyst we are using to change behaviour.

Members pay for a service and some expect all facilities to be operational, despite an unprecedented drought. This may not be reasonable but it is what we face. We are reliant on water for facilities such as the pool, the sauna and steam room and the showers. In May 2017, we made a made a decision to turn off the saunas and steam rooms given the amount of water required to run the facilities, not only in operation but also in cleaning and the additional showers members take.  We did this with good intention but it was a deed that did not go unpunished.  It has been a journey to convey that if we don’t take action on every level now, we will be in position where any facilities requiring water will need to be turned off indefinitely.

Read: What is creative tension and how can it help you?

Municipal water is drinking water. We are on a journey to go off grid to conserve drinking water reserves. When you look across our estate, there is no ‘’one size fits all.’’ With the grey water systems, each one has to be designed around the existing plumbing infrastructure, as well as the quality of ground water from our boreholes. The challenge with this is that it can slow our rollout process.

Another challenge was keeping our pools topped up despite restrictions stating that no municipal water may be used to fill pools.  Tenants, such as the swim schools and PT’s, are reliant on our facilities being operational in order to run their own businesses. We managed to source run-off water from a manufacturing plant and we truck this water to our various clubs to top up our pools. We have up to three trucks making two deliveries per day. The water is run through the filtration system before reaching the pool.

We have a full plan in place in the event of Day Zero. This includes a plan for ablutions. Health and safety standards require we have a minimum of 258 toilets available for members and staff, excluding the urinals which will operate without water.

How does Virgin Active encourage creative thinking in situations like this when the answers might not always be easy to arrive at?

We have a team that doesn’t take no for an answer! Couple that with deep expertise in their respective fields, and we had some robust discussions, and left no stone unturned. Key to this was a blessing "from the top" that we had to do the right thing without being constrained by budget (within reason). This meant that our team literally explored every option available in our bid to reducing our consumption of municipal water.

Do you think problems such as this drive innovation forward in a business - is it always important to have a problem to try and solve?

Definitely. And innovation doesn’t need to be grand or tech-based. By placing buckets in our showers to capture water to use to flush our loos, we not only saved water but also demonstrated that simple interventions could have a big impact.

We’ve also looked into our various communities to assist various charity organisations to reach a position of water resilience.


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