This article comes from an Ethical Corporation focus on sustainability in food and drink supply chains, sponsored by PepsiCo UK & Ireland. Green innovation is transforming the way food and drink products are made, but radical ideas still need greater backing

A few years ago the idea of a “zero water” crisp factory would have fallen on stony ground. It would have been dismissed as expensive and unnecessary when water was considered cheap and plentiful.

Business has come a long way since then. So far, in fact, that such a pilot factory could be up and running within the next 18 months.

Water in the form of steam is currently the biggest by-product of crisp production as potatoes are on average 75% water. This water is lost, as steam and water vapour, when potatoes are fried to make crisps.

Crisps brand Walkers wants to capture the steam and turn it back into water to reuse on the production line when the potatoes are peeled and sliced. A factory with this technology would be water neutral in the sense that it would not need to take any water from the mains water supply.

“Within the next 18 months we will have a factory pilot in place,” says Martyn Seal, European sustainability director at PepsiCo, which owns Walkers. The brand is about six months away from having the technology defined and commercially viable, says Seal.

Walkers is not the only brand to capture and reuse water in this way. In Germany, Philadelphia cream cheese, owned by Kraft Foods of the US, has captured water vapour from sweet whey to use in the plant’s cooling towers. This has drastically cut the factory’s demand on the water supply of the local town, Fallingbostel.

And it is not only water. A number of food and drink brands are starting to source energy from green sources for manufacturing sites around the world to reduce their carbon impacts. Unilever, for example, has installed solar panels at a factory in Vietnam. Cadbury has a number of green energy projects at sites around the world and has invested £70m building a new chewing gum factory in Poland to run on biomass.

Green invention

Food and drink brands are putting on their green thinking caps to cut environmental impacts in manufacturing. And for good reason. In the UK alone, manufacturers across all sectors are missing out on resource efficiency savings of £6.4bn a year, according to EEF, the UK manufacturers’ organisation. It estimates that UK firms could be wasting up to 5% of turnover on unused materials, defects and unnecessary energy and water use.

This ecological and economic no-brainer is what is driving global food and drink brands to set bold green targets and make big reductions in their environmental impacts across their operations. Comparing targets is difficult because companies use different models and different baselines. But companies agree that setting challenging “stretch-targets” is one of the most effective ways of generating ideas for using resources much more efficiently.

“It’s a case of necessity being the mother of invention,” says David Croft, conformance and sustainability director at Cadbury. The confectioner has set itself the ambitious goal of an absolute 50% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Managers at Cadbury’s 65 manufacturing sites around the world meet once a year to discuss ways of refining their operations to help meet this target.

Cadbury has also set up a “Factories for the Future” intranet site where managers can share tips for environmental management best-practice – although simple “good practice” is often just as important, says Croft. Advice includes how to do a thorough environment review – to work out where the biggest areas of resource use are – and turning down the pressure of compressed air systems to make big energy savings.

Global brands are well placed to trial new technology and techniques and transfer them to other sites around the world, says Seal. For example, after trialling successfully in the UK, PepsiCo Europe was able to roll out more efficient heat exchangers across 21 snacks manufacturing sites in 10 countries within three years. In the UK it took just a year to roll out 1,800 energy-efficient light fittings by quickly sharing an idea trialled at one Walkers site in Coventry. “These are things we are really set up to do,” says Seal. The question for brands that have made these “quick wins”, as he says, is: “Where do we go next?”

The answer lies in “transformational ideas”, like a zero-carbon crisp factory, or sourcing entirely from green energy. But leading brands will face tough choices when making such a step-change. Seal explains: “Transformational ideas can cost more and pay-back is not always quick.” But he says the company is committed to trialling these new ideas because of their long-term benefits – both financially and environmentally.

As ever, businesses will need far-sighted leaders willing to take risks to get radical green ideas off the drawing board.

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