By Emily Newton
Food and beverage production and processing consume massive amounts of water — both in products and as an essential material for various cleaning, cooling, and utility purposes. As climate change and drought threaten existing water sources, businesses and consumers are paying more attention to how industry at large uses it.
With the right combination of best practices, innovative technology, and process changes, businesses in the food and beverage (F&B) industry can identify inefficiencies and significantly reduce their water consumption.
Growing Water Scarcity Encourages Efficient Water Usage
There are two major factors behind the industry’s changing attitude toward water use.
The first is the increasing prevalence of droughts throughout the U.S. and much of the world. California has experienced some of its worst droughts on record in the past few years. Experts believe climate change may make them more severe,1 pushing growers to reduce industrial water consumption and identify inefficiencies.
The knock-on effects of drought, like wildfires, are also encouraging more conservative water usage.
Outside of the U.S., the situation looks similar — around one-fifth of the world’s population2 lives in water-scarce areas and one-fourth face water shortages. Experts predict this crisis is likely to become worse over the next few years. As a result, water prices may rise.
Why Businesses Are Investigating New Strategies For Water Consumption Management
At the same time, growing consumer awareness of companies’ environmental stewardship also has industry leaders reevaluating F&B water consumption that contributes to scarcity3. Consumers, especially younger ones, are paying more attention than ever to how businesses use resources and prioritize sustainable practices.
There is evidence that consumers are willing to spend a premium4 on goods perceived to be eco-friendly or manufactured with green practices. This encourages businesses to adopt sustainability as a company priority.
Additionally, water is an essential input for F&B production. Reducing water consumption can save businesses money directly and indirectly by reducing wastewater treatment costs.
All this means there is a significant opportunity for F&B businesses that can reduce their water consumption.
Key Areas Of Inefficient Water Consumption
There are three key areas of water consumption in the F&B industry, according to a recent technical paper5 from Haskell.
The largest is clean-in-place (CIP), the automated cleaning of process equipment with minimal human intervention, which consumes half of all non-product water used in F&B plants.
Heat exchange, in the form of cooling towers, accounts for around 16 percent of F&B water usage, and the remaining consumption is split among various cleaning and utility demands.
Often, water use in all three of these areas is inefficient to some degree.
Water Inefficiencies In CIP Systems
CIP was adopted as a way to streamline cleaning and sanitation in F&B plants. Before the advent of CIP, these processes were often labor-intensive, unsafe, inconsistent, and required plant-wide shutdowns, impacting productivity.
Adoption of CIP has improved plant uptime and worker safety. However, inefficiencies in CIP processes generate significant amounts6 of water waste.
In a typical CIP sanitation process, water is used to provide an initial and final rinse, as well as between uses of caustic and acid cleaning agents. Each of these phases presents an opportunity for waste. Water may also be lost due to oversized equipment or while being moved through pipes from a CIP unit to process equipment being cleaned.
Water Inefficiencies In Cooling Towers And Miscellaneous F&B Equipment
Cooling towers use the evaporative properties of water to enable highly efficient heat exchange. Some cooling tower water loss is inevitable — what’s evaporated during the process likely can’t be saved.
However, suspended and dissolved solids in cooling tower water can reduce efficiency — increasing the amount of water necessary for them to function properly.
In some cases, aging equipment may also be causing issues. Some facilities, due to their age or maintenance practices, have a large number of leaks. Repair, replacement, and effective upkeep can help these facilities minimize water loss due to leaks.
Identifying And Reducing Water Consumption And Waste
In addition to identifying key areas of water consumption, the Haskell paper also recommends process changes manufacturers can put into place to reduce usage by up to 50 percent.
Businesses wanting to reduce water consumption should begin with an audit of current use. This will provide essential information on how water is being used across an enterprise. Various strategies exist, but effective audits often adopt a total plant approach. They evaluate consumption in terms of total input and output from the beginning to the end of operations.
This auditing strategy will help the business identify water overconsumption not directly related to manufacturing processes. For example, site landscaping can sometimes be a significant source of consumption, and simple changes can reduce these landscaping practices7. Treated wastewater or grey water can be used to irrigate site plants.
Allowing grass to grow taller can also reduce the amount of water it needs, as it provides shade that reduces soil water evaporation.
While the bulk of water consumption will likely come from the three challenge areas of CIP, cooling and utility, identifying other areas of water consumption can help businesses maximize waste reduction.
Reducing Inefficiencies In CIP Systems
The design of the CIP units and piping that supplies this water can significantly impact system performance and efficiency. For example, oversized pipes and CIP units distant from the utilities they clean can unnecessarily increase system water consumption.
Product recovery systems can also help businesses minimize water consumption even when the redesign of CIP units is impractical.
Flow, temperature, turbidity, and conductivity sensors can form the foundation of a recovery system that minimizes the length of each CIP rinse phase. It can divert product, product-water mixtures and water into separate networks, allowing for reuse and repurposing as livestock feed.
These sensors may also produce valuable process data that can be used to improve models or identify system inefficiencies.
In some cases, single-use equipment may allow businesses to eliminate the need for cleaning altogether. However, this may mean wasting plastic, metal, and other materials. As a result, this may not always be a desirable solution to water overconsumption in a plant.
Reducing Inefficiencies In Cooling Towers And Miscellaneous Utility Processes
While businesses can’t recover water lost due to evaporation, improved cooling tower water filtration can reduce the water necessary for plant cooling.
Plant managers can also implement systems that recapture valuable components from waste streams. The separation or recapture of these components helps the business recover value and conserve water.
For example, waste streams carrying fats and proteins can be skimmed with microfiltration membranes to recover these components. Proteins can be recovered as a product ingredient, while fats will not be released to the municipal waste system. This filtration also enables greater onsite water reuse — often one of the best ways to minimize consumption.
Best Practices Can Optimize F&B Industry Water Usage
While food and beverage manufacturing consumes a large amount of water, best practices and equipment changes can help plant owners reduce site consumption.
Rearranging CIP units, upgrading cooling tower filtration and investing in systems that can recapture waste products may help businesses conserve water. Even small changes to site management — like using greywater to irrigate site landscaping — may help a company minimize water waste.
Emily Newton is an industrial journalist. She regularly covers stories for the utilities and energy sectors. Emily is also Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized.
- Nuccitelli, D. (2021, June 8). California, ‘America’s garden,’ is drying out. Yale Climate Connections. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/06/california-americas-garden-is-drying-out/
- One in five children globally does not have enough water to meet their everyday needs. (2021, March 17). UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/one-five-children-globally-does-not-have-enough-water-meet-their-everyday-needs
- Reasons Why We Need to Prevent Water Scarcity. Revolutionized. https://revolutionized.com/prevent-water-scarcity/
- More than Half of Consumers Would Pay More for Sustainable Products Designed to Be Reused or Recycled, Accenture Survey Finds. (2019, June 4.) Accenture. https://newsroom.accenture.com/news/more-than-half-of-consumers-would-pay-more-for-sustainable-products-designed-to-be-reused-or-recycled-accenture-survey-finds.htm
- Heldman, D. and Price, R. (2018, July 6). Recapture and Reuse: 3 Areas to Cut Non-Product Water Consumption Inside Your Plant. Haskell. https://www.haskell.com/insights/recapture-and-reuse-how-to-cut-water-consumption/
- Methods to Achieve Sustainable Clean-In-Place (2018, April 5). Haskell. https://www.haskell.com/insights/methods-to-achieve-sustainable-clean-in-place/
- How to Conserve Water in an Industrial Facility. Chardon Laboratories. https://chardonlabs.com/resources/conserve-water-industrial-facility