With a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Applied Sciences at Niederrhein, Sylvia Geipel has worked at Ecolab in Monheim since 2013. Starting as a senior lab technician, Sylvia in 2015 became a chemist with the European RD&E Industrial Kitchen Hygiene Department. In that role, she not only handles the kitchen hygiene portfolio but also serves as a technical expert for global projects. She is also a leader in organizing customer tours in the Monheim facility.
Given that her work sometimes involves explaining complicated scientific concepts to people outside of the technical field, Sylvia has embraced the Clean and Conserve program--which is now available in German--as a way to further reach the public with information about water as “our most important limited resource.” As part of our ongoing “Ask the Scientist” series, we asked Sylvia why educating young people about water is important to her, what some of the water challenges she sees are and how water educations helps address those challenges:
Project WET Foundation (PWF): One of the major focus areas of the Clean and Conserve program is hygiene education for young people. If you were talking to a classroom of 10-year-olds, what would you want them to know about water from a hygiene perspective?
Sylvia Geipel (SG): First and foremost, I need to say that I really appreciate the opportunity to work with an organization like Project WET that is truly focusing on water education. Protecting our resources, especially water as our most important limited resource, is often not treated with the urgency it deserves. ‘Clean Water’ is one of the four primary pillars of Ecolab’s vision, the others being ‘Safe Food’, ‘Abundant Energy’ and ‘Healthy Environments’. Our general approach is to educate on the importance of water and how it is used for our everyday products along with the fact that water is a limited resource. In guided Customer Experience Center Tours, for example, we are giving our customers data and facts about water usage. When water is viewed as a limited resource, this often illustrates the need for action as a community to conserve and maintain clean water.
Coming back to your question on younger people’s education; one specific Project WET demonstration comes to mind when we go into schools. The “Drop in the Bucket” activity shows how water is limited resource, available worldwide at different qualities.
The demonstration starts with a 1-liter beaker filled with water to represent the overall availability of water around the globe. From that, we extract different amounts to show how little of the liter is fresh water, and how much of that is trapped in glaciers or icecaps or otherwise unavailable. Extracting only one drop from that much smaller amount then shows young people the amount that is available to run, freely accessed, every day out of the tap in a country like Germany.
PWF: Professionally and/or personally, what are the biggest water challenges that you deal with?
SG: I think in general, for both perspectives, indirect water consumption is the biggest challenge we are dealing with. Of course, everybody gets taught to turn off the water tap while cleaning their teeth or lathering their body in the shower. These are important but still small contributions. My challenge both personally and professionally is how we can impact the availability of water on a global scale. We are using tap water to fill swimming pools or to irrigate the garden, and the challenge is to find the right balance in our attitude toward water. The Ecolab building here in Monheim is one of the positive examples where water is both used and conserved. We use rain water for sanitary facilities but also use a lot of tap water for our testing in laboratories, with the end goal of the research being a reduction of overall water usage.
PWF: How does what you do at Ecolab address some of those challenges?
SG: At Ecolab, we focus on educating people the best we can, as shown above with our programs and demonstrations in schools. We are also supporting our customers in being more efficient during cleaning procedures related to water and energy consumption as well as water treatment. Frequent training of employees and customers support this education, as do cleaning cards, presentations, trainings and videos. When I think of developing a new product innovation, I ask myself a few questions: Are the products eco-friendly and sustainable? Do they preserve fresh water and reduce waste water? And of course, do they meet customer needs?
PWF: What role can water education play in addressing water challenges?
SG: From my perspective, training and education are key in changing the human mentality to view water as a precious resource, the way it should be treated. Project WET gives me the chance to present this important topic to our youngest generation, who are our future. Of course, changing behavior is not always easy, but everybody needs to take the first step on their own. Having multipliers like young children learn to treat water respectfully and, more importantly, pass the story on, helps tackle water challenges in the future. I always finish my lessons at school by naming the kids as “WaterStars” ("WasserHeld" or “water hero” in German). They all get stickers or pins as a kind of certification. I then tell them that with this promotion comes a great responsibility: to train and teach others to not waste water and treat water as a resource needing protection.
Previous “Ask the Scientist” entries:
The Clean and Conserve Education Program, developed through the partnership between the Project WET Foundation and Ecolab, includes lessons, activities and other learning resources for children and youth ages three through 18, as well as educators. Originally published in English, Clean and Conserve materials are also available in Chinese, Spanish for Mexico, German, French for Canada and Portuguese for Brazil (French and Portuguese materials are available for download from the English-language page). Visit the Clean and Conserve page to learn more.