Can Coca-Cola's new water system be a game changer?

Can Coca-Cola's new water system be a game changer?

The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE: KO) says it has developed a first-of-its-kind beverage process water recovery system that can cut its water use by 35 percent.

According to the beverage giant, the new system meets or exceeds drinking water standards for use in non-product activities and is used for clean-in-place and bottle washing. Coca-Cola said the system takes highly treated process water and further treats it by using a combination of membrane bioreactor, ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, ozonation, and ultraviolet disinfection.

The Atlanta-based company said it believes that its system stands out from current treatment processes used in its business sector.

“While we and other members of the food and beverage industry have recycled and reused water for various processes for many years, this pilot is a first-of-its-kind beverage process water recovery system,” said Greg Koch, director of global water stewardship for the Coca-Cola Company.

Koch said the benefit of the system could potentially be enormous.

“By reusing cleaned and treated water for non-product applications, the new system could potentially lessen the company’s withdrawal of water in the long-term as our unit case volume continues to grow. In the Coca-Cola system alone, that’s approximately 900 bottling locations in 206 countries,” he said.

As much as 100 billion liters of water could be saved annually if the system is implemented across all Coca-Cola bottling plants.

Analysts say Coca-Cola’s new water reuse system is potentially groundbreaking for the beverage industry.

"There’s no question that Coke is using its innovative skills around technology with this system, coupled with its commercial scale in bottling, to change the H2O treatment game in a meaningful way," said Robert Kuhn, president of Kuhn Associates Management Advisors.

Kuhn also calls the size of the system's efficiency improvement impressive and said the beverage giant's new project reminds him of the successful work done around packaging the “plant bottle” technology that has now been licensed to Heinz and other companies.

"There may be other neat H2O treatment systems out there in beverage, but what Coke has is innovation plus size and that’s pretty profound," he said.

Koch would not disclose how much it will cost Coca-Cola to roll out the project. “The water recovery system will require significant capital investment,” he said.

Besides lessening its water footprint, Coca-Cola also believes it is breaking new ground with its water recovery system. Koch said its system was developed to produce high-quality purified water that meets or exceeds drinking water standards for use in non-product activities.

“There are (just) a few other companies and municipalities that use similar technologies in select countries for various applications,” he said.

The Atlanta-based company says water management is at the heart of its sustainability efforts.

“Our global water stewardship goal is to safely return to nature and to communities an amount of water equivalent to what we use in our beverages and their production by 2020,” Koch said.

Coca-Cola isn’t the only beverage company exploring new ways to reduce its water footprint. The food and beverage sector has been dipping its toe in sustainable waters over the last couple of years.

Siemens recently announced a deal with PepsiCo. (NYSE: PEP) to install a water reuse system at a snack food production plant in Santiago, Chile.

“Water has been a particularly big issue for the food and beverage industry,” said Kuhn. “The people working in the business are examining water impact in a number of areas.”

In particular, the industry is focused on water usage in production, transportation, corporate consumption, he said.

“Water is going to emerge as a real challenging issue for the food and beverage sector,” he said. “Many companies are now looking at pain points or opportunities and they’ve gotten very creative in their solutions.”

Kuhn said if the new Coca-Cola system proves a success, the Atlanta-based company may eventually share the underlying technology system for a license fee.

“Coke has been real good about sharing in the past,” he said. “Coke may decide to keep this system as their own, but to some extent (food and beverage companies) are all in the same boat -- they all share the same water issues and concerns.”

Coca Cola said that if the project is successful, it will share the system with its bottling partners for implementation within their plant operations in “the coming years.”