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PepsiCo's Water-Saving Mission Flows Beyond Its Factories

When it comes to water issues, PepsiCo's fizzy drinks tend to get all the attention. But the company is also a huge manufacturer of snack foods. Its food operations, PepsiCo is finding, offer huge potential to save water -- including going "off the water grid."

At a UK factory that makes Walkers potato chips -- or "crisps," as the locals prefer -- PepsiCo is exploring the possibility that the potatoes themselves could yield enough water to operate the factory.

Potatoes offer a unique opportunity to turn off the taps, PepsiCo's plant managers have recognized. When raw spuds arrive at the loading dock, they're about 80 percent water by volume.

Indeed, the biggest challenge in making chips crispy is extracting all that water. As the thinly sliced spuds pass through the deep fryer, a thick fog of steam rises from the oil's surface, as the water steams off.

Instead of letting it escape through a chimney, PepsiCo is exploring the possibility of capturing the vapor, condensing it to reuse and maybe recapturing the heat energy at the same time. It's a move the company estimates could save the plant in Leicester, England, $1 million per year.

PepsiCo's UK and Ireland arm has become a leader in setting ambitious environmental and operating goals. These also include being fossil fuel free by 2023 and achieving zero landfill across its supply chain by 2018 (click here to see more on the UK and Ireland goals).

Thinking like this is helping PepsiCo push ahead with ambitious goals globally, to cut water use across the beverage-and-snack conglomerate's worldwide operations, says Dan Bena, PepsiCo's director of sustainable development.

I caught up with Dan last week to hear how things were going since Pepsi published its inaugural water report last September (click here to download a PDF).

The report followed PepsiCo's move in 2009 to publicly endorse water as a human right, just in advance of a similar declaration by the UN general assembly.

PepsiCo's approach combines internal efforts at its plants with collaborative programs to conserve supplies of and improve access to clean water globally.

As part of a broader set of corporate sustainability goals, PepsiCo is specifically aiming to:

  • Improve water use efficiency by 20 percent per unit of production by 2015 compared with 2006;
  • Strive for positive water balance in operations in water-distressed areas; and
  • Provide access to safe water to 3 million people in developing countries by the end of 2015.

Efforts to cut water are ahead of schedule to beat the 20-by-2015 goal, says Bena. To drive this process within its factories, the company is turning to ReCon -- short for "resource conservation" -- a homemade analytic tool that maps out the use of energy and water in manufacturing plants. Deployed at hundreds of sites, and used in collaboration with supply-chain partners, the tool has saved many millions of dollars in water and energy costs.

"There's a myth that water is cheap in many areas," says Bena. "Even in places where it is inexpensive to buy, once you start measuring, you see the costs of treating water, using it, filtering it, and discharging it piling up.

"In some cases, we're seeing a tenfold increase in the fully measured cost of water from when it enters a facility to when the process is complete. When business people see water costs real money, there's no better way to get their attention."

Bena explained that the second of PepsiCo's three water goals, above, amounts to a kind of "one-for-one" rule. For every liter of water the company uses, PepsiCo hopes to restore, replenish or prevent the waste of as much or more water.

By this measure, Bena says that PepsiCo has already exceeded this goal in India thanks to its role developing a direct-seeding technology for rice. The method drastically reduces the period during which the rice stalks must be submerged in 6 to 12 inches of water.

"We patented a piece of equipment that saves about 30 percent of the water compared with traditional methods," says Bena.

PepsiCo's R&D team developed the specialized tractor over about four years, and has given Indian farmers free access to the equipment, along with technical guidance to learn new growing methods.

According to a World Business Council case study of the effort, PepsiCo's initiative also cut farmers' costs by 3,500 rupees (about $80) per hectare compared with traditional methods. Extended to 2,630 hectares (approx. 6,500 acres) in 2009, the system conserved an estimated 5.5 billion liters of water.

In addition, the Indian Government estimates that reduced water use lowers the paddy's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 70 percent, cutting down the volume of rotting vegetative mass, which gives off methane, in the standing water.

To push towards its third goal, providing safe water to 3 million people by 2015, PepsiCo has been focusing on developing public water kiosks in Ghana, India and Kenya. "There's a misconception that people can't or shouldn't pay for water," says Bena. "The reality is that in many poor countries, they already do, and they pay a high price for low quality water."

Working with -- which is the culmination of the July 2009 merger between Water Partners International and Matt Damon's H20 Africa Foundation -- PepsiCo is trying to supplant high-priced, private water distributors to build community taps.

There's another benefit, too. "By brining water into a community, you eliminate the time children -- often hours, and usually girls -- typically spend fetching fresh water," says Bena.

Back in the factories where it makes fizzy drinks, PepsiCo continues to drive down the volume of water use. "On average, it takes about 2.5 liters of water to produce one liter of beverage."

"It's really variable though," Bena says. "Some newer, advanced plants are running at half that ratio. Some older ones are probably double that. That's the opportunity that we face."

Image courtesy of PepsiCo.

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