Anheuser-Busch InBev: Less water, more beer

The world's biggest beer brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev has adopted an aggressive series of five-year environmental goals, calling for further reductions in water and energy consumption and setting its first formal targets for packaging reductions and eco-friendly coolers.

The seven new commitments come just four months after AB InBev revealed it had surpassed previous three-year commitments for water, energy and waste.

The Belgian-based brewer already has saved enough water to produce about 25 billion cans of AB InBev beverages. Currently, it uses an average of 3.5 hectoliters of water for every hectoliter of production.

Now it is trying to squeeze more from the process: The new five-year goal aims to reach a global average of 3.2 hectoliters of water per hectoliter of production. For those who like to visualize this sort of thing, that works out to the amount of water it would take to fill approximately 5,400 Olympic swimming pools.

The Carterville brewery in Georgia already has outstripped that goal: It uses just 2.8 hectoliters of water per hectoliter of production.

To move toward that measure in other production facilities, the company is introducing water management measures in each of its key barley growing regions through partnerships with local stakeholders and growers. In addition, it is introducing watershed protection measures at all of its facilities in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Mexico, Peru and the United States.

Heightened attention deeper into the supply chain

The new commitments are notable for their global scope and because they also focus far more attention on encouraging sustainable operations throughout AB InBev's entire supply chain, according to AB InBev executives.

"Our approach recognizes that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to improve sustainability," said AB InBev CEO Carlos Brito. "The key will be to leverage the experience and expertise of our colleagues globally, foster a collective approach through partnerships with local stakeholders and continue to scale best practices across our company."

One example comes from southern Idaho, where grower Timm Adams has worked with AB InBev to shift his barley production to the winter season. Because the crop can use the natural moisture from the rain and snow that falls during that time frame -- it requires 20 percent less water while producing a greater yield than other strains -- his operation can decrease its purchases from the local irrigation district, Adams said. Overall, the load on the local estuary is also decreased.

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Top photo of beer pouring into a glass by anyamuse via Shutterstock.

Bottom photo of farmer Timm Adams courtesy of AB InBev.

"Not only am I saving water, but I am avoiding costs that I would otherwise incur," Adams said.

A different conservation practice altogether is being tested in Brazil: AB InBev is encouraging a crop rotation of barley and maize, and is donating saplings for green belts that have been planted around the barley fields to protect crops and increase biodiversity.

This is testament to the need for local approaches to global sustainability goals. "We will do a deep dive globally to see which practices we can share," said Bert Share, AB InBev's senior global director, Beer & Better World.

More energy cuts, first formal packaging goals

Aside from the ongoing water conservation measures, here are the four other goals that AB InBev has embraced for the 2017 timeframe, set against a 2012 baseline:

1. Reduce global greenhouse (GHG) emissions per hectoliter of production by 10 percent, including a specific 15 percent reduction per hectoliter in China.

2. Decrease global energy usage per hectoliter of production by 10 percent (it already cut its power consumption by 12 percent per hectoliter of production during the past three years).

3. Cut packaging by 100,000 tons, the equivalent of approximately 250 million full cans of beer.

4. Alter purchasing processes for beverage coolers, so that 70 percent of all new technology purchased by 2017 use LED lighting, eco-friendly refrigerant and energy-efficiency measures.

AB InBev has encouraged packaging reductions for some time, in an effort to reduce fuel consumption, increase its use of recycled content and cut back on waste. But this is the first time it has set a formal reduction goal for this area of its operations, Share said.

For example, in the United Kingdom, certain Beck's and Beck's Blue bottles were redesigned to use less glass; they are now 11 percent lighter and require less energy to produce. The change will affect more than 130 million bottles by the end of this year, saving 2,642 metric tons of glass and averting more than 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Another program in the United States aimed at reducing aluminum cans, boxes, partitions and cartons so far has saved nearly 30,000 metric tons of forestry products and more than 300 metric tons of aluminum. And in China, a simple change to beer can lids -- to make the diameter smaller -- is being embraced by other suppliers across the country.