Resource efficiency is being championed across Europe’s food and drink sector and for other industrial and manufacturing sites. Alongside investment in clean energy and reducing carbon emissions, factory sites are being expected to curtail their water footprint, with greater water efficiency and re-use.
The UK’s Committee on Climate Change, with its recent Net Zero report, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are raising concerns about global warming and calling for renewed action to reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. While many of our politicians seem to have lost interest in protecting the planet, there are encouraging signs of a change in public attitudes.
Greater media interest in food and farming methods and the rise of veganism are impacting consumer behaviour and hence businesses that supply our daily needs. The clamour for greater resource efficiency and rapid industrial decarbonisation, as part of the transition to zero emissions by 2050, is getting stronger.
A more holistic approach to both energy supply and water management will significantly reduce our carbon and water footprints. Bio-residues from many production processes have both an energy and water content. Bio-degradable effluents, by-products and reject materials that might previously have been disposed of have a re-use value. Industry must adopt a more circular approach, where residues’ value is recognised in their redeployment.
Pressure from environmental stakeholders is also matched by concern about future access to water supplies. As industry becomes more focused on sustainable resource use, water recycling and the re-use of treated wastewater, alongside minimising waste generation and creating value from process residues, requires specialist, innovative, cost-effective technologies and expertise.
The water challenge applies to a range of manufacturing processes and across the food supply chain. There are two options: reducing net water use or using recycled water on processing sites. Water can also be recycled following extraction from products like milk or having been used in producing beer.
As factory sites transform their water footprint by using water minimisation techniques to reduce fresh water demand or the volume of effluent generated, they should explore how they can incorporate harvested or recycled water in their production processes.
There is concern that recycled water should not be used in contact with sensitive raw materials such as milk. Nevertheless, other opportunities exist, as do the technologies that can support the reduction of food processing sites’ water footprint. Extracting latent energy from liquid effluents on factory sites can facilitate water recycling, while reducing both energy and water treatment costs.
Deploying innovative technologies should be supported through an industrial policy which encourages sustainable solutions. Our food and drink sector needs to meet wider resource efficiency expectations, including on-site water recovery and re-use. Action and investment underway on the sites of larger multinational companies needs to be matched on smaller and SME factory sites.
The recovery of useful resources whether as novel ingredients or bio-energy or just for water re-use is key to meeting the challenges that protesters and lobby groups are calling out for. Optimising our resource efficiency brings together the bio-economy and the circular economy. New approaches to low carbon manufacturing are an important step on the path to meeting the zero-carbon challenge laid down recently by the Committee on Climate Change.
As we await the Government response to the CCC’s Net Zero report, policy levers must include tougher targets for reducing fossil fuel and water use. The Scottish Government has already committed to meeting the Net Zero target by 2045.
Alongside carbon taxation, we need incentives for smaller factory sites, for example preferential loans for SMEs that invest in on-site water re-use and bio-energy. Greater transparency on how British companies are reducing their water use and carbon emissions should become mandatory.
Industry, regulators, technology providers and politicians must collaborate to meet the low-carbon manufacturing challenge, as individual sectors seek to develop their own strategies. Some companies like Arla Foods and Nestle have already made commitments; trade bodies will be expected to support their members in meeting the carbon challenge.
We need more leadership not only from our distracted politicians but also regulators, on the definition of the pathway to net zero. Considerable infrastructure investment will also be required if we are to transform the way that we power and fuel the food production chain.
Bioenergy technology companies are providing solutions that can deliver optimal carbon reduction. The challenge is to find a way to commercialise such innovation without taxpayer support. In Scotland, the Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme (LCITP) is funding projects that can showcase solutions to support this transition. We need to see similar support from the UK government, not only for bioenergy generation but also water efficiency on industrial sites, both large and small.