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Bush Brothers counts on water reuse to reduce local impact of bean production

The hyperlocal system in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee, is still a relatively rare but impactful investment.

The Bush Brothers wastewater treatment facility

Bush Brothers installed Evoqua's wastewater treatment system after experiencing the effects of a local drought in Tennessee.

"There was nothing except a pipe going out the back of the plant."

This was how Rodney Aulick, president of integrated solutions and services at Evoqua Water Technologies, described the wastewater system at Bush Brothers and Company’s Tennessee plant, when it first engaged with the food company.

Bush Brothers is the largest manufacturer of prepared beans in the United States, and its work with water treatment titan Evoqua resulted in massive improvements, Aulick said. The plant is now able to reuse much of its water, lowering the strain on the community system and environment as a whole. The company is also better equipped to tightly control its water usage, according to Evoqua.  

Bush Brothers, a family-owned business, has been operating in the small community of Chestnut Hill, Tennessee, for over 110 years. The company keeps the community in mind when pushing for new production goals and system upgrades. In 2016, Bush Brothers began working with Evoqua to upgrade its wastewater system to reduce its reliance on public water sources and provide its facility with more capacity, flexibility and reliability. The project was completed in the fall of 2019.

For companies such as Bush Brothers, investing in technology to improve the sustainability of its business processes is more than just a good PR move — it's also a measure necessary to ensure plants can keep operating even through increasing periods of climate extremes. Water, specifically, stopped being an afterthought for Bush Brothers after the 2007 drought in Chestnut Hill. This was the wake-up call the executives needed to replace that pipe with something better. 

"They wanted to use that precious water that was going out the back end of their plant, back into the front end," Aulick said. 

To do this, Evoqua and Bush Brothers built a wastewater treatment plant near one of its bean canneries at the Chestnut Hill property. According to Will Sarni, CEO of the Water Foundry, a hyperlocal water recycling plant such as this is still a rare project for U.S. businesses. Bush Brothers' other facility in August, Wisconsin, has a biogas reuse program in place (as does Chestnut Hill) but the Tennessee facility represents the only water reuse system for the company.

They wanted to use that precious water that was going out the back end of their plant, back into the front end.

"I think in the U.S, it’s really just a few percentage points in terms of the volume of water," Sarni said. "This is the exception, not the rule."

The Chestnut Hill facility uses a bioreactor to clean the water, which creates biogas for supplemental energy for the factory. Dissolved flotation and reverse osmosis are used to remove particulate matter from the water. 

While the water is clean enough to be used in food processing, most of the recycled water is pumped into the heating and cooling systems, as these represent the largest uses of water in the plant, according to Evoqua. Up to 20 percent of the water Bush Brothers uses is from its reuse system.

Terry Farris, director of engineering for Bush Brothers, wrote in an email that his company’s goals were to create redundancy while also making sure the new system would have the capability to accommodate additional flows and alternative waste systems in the future.

Evoqua’s strategy when it comes to designing the recycle/reuse facility of an operating plant is to be extremely flexible and quickly adjustable, according to Aulick. That's because what the plant is making on a morning shift can be vastly different from in 12 hours on a second shift, he said. The product being produced, the step in the process or even the season can drastically affect water usage. The waste plant needs to be ready for those changes, Aulick said.

Evoqua noted that during harvest season for Bush Brothers, bean loads are large, which leads to an increase in water volume processing. During the canning season, water volume can be lower but the concentration of contaminants is higher, as the manufacturing is focused on adding spices. 

"You really have to plan a robust technology that can be adjusted for those unique events," Aulick said. "You need to have a technology that you can adjust on the fly."

Aulick has seen companies such as Bush Brothers start to look 20 or 30 years into the future. Its leaders and engineers are beginning to address the big questions: Can my facility persevere through a drought? If the company can’t rely on the local government, does the plant have an alternative waste management system? 

Farris told GreenBiz that the company knew there would be a high capital investment and operating costs to upgrade the wastewater treatment facility. But the ability to create value from a waste stream would offset the expense and the move toward more sustainable practices was worth the investment, he said. Bush Brothers declined to provide the exact cost of the investment.

"It used to be that we drove a lot more of these projects through sales," Aulick said. "We would help to identify the potential and convince [businesses] that it had a return. Today we see more and more customers on their own saying, ‘I have a sustainability goal.’ What we used to have to push for, we are now getting pulled into."

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