Water is becoming the new carbon. A few years ago, the green business community was focused on carbon offsets, carbon markets, and of course, CO2 in the atmosphere. Great Britain, particularly London, has been suffering from drought the last eight months, and with droughts ravaging lands from Australia to California, more business leaders and public officials are taking a hard look at how to manage with decreasing water supplies. Now, one multinational is working to take itself off of the local water grid.
PepsiCo’s United Kingdom office is taking dramatic steps to reduce water consumption at its four potato chip (which make the Walker’s Crisps brand) processing plants. According to Walter Todd, PepsiCo’s vice president of sustainability for Europe and operations head in the UK of Ireland, this is a proactive move to thwart any forced reduction in operating hours or even a notice to shut down.
So how will PepsiCo UK accomplish its goal of weaning its factories off of local water supplies?
The trick is to extract water from produce, particularly potatoes, which are 80% water. Each year the factories process 350,000 tons of potatoes. As those potatoes are cooked and fried, their water is lost, so the company is investigating methods by which such water can be salvaged and reused in its factories’ daily operations.
PespiCo has already taken large measures in slashing its water use. From 2000 to 2008, all of its factories combined to reduce their water usage by 45%, and last year they registered an almost 15% reduction in its water consumption.
Currently, the company sources its potatoes solely from UK farms, but it is concerned that a continued drought would force it to buy potatoes and other vegetables from elsewhere. Therefore the company is experimenting with potato varieties that use less water, as well as testing irrigation equipment that will compare soil moisture at farms with local weather conditions, in turn watering crops more effectively with minimal water waste.
According to Todd, the plan for total water recycling will be in place within five to 10 years. We will have to wait several years to see if PepsiCo’s plans work: Right now the company is mum on the exact details as to how exactly this miraculous potato water system will work.
What PepsiCo’s effort demonstrates is that if companies are serious about moving toward more sustainable products and services, such steps involve more than reduced packaging, efficient lighting, or experimenting with renewable energy-fueled transport. Companies will have to evaluate their entire supply chains, from farm to final product, and work with its suppliers closely on issues from everything from reduced water and energy use to improved working conditions to greater transparency.