When it comes to sustainability, many manufacturing industries could stand to take notice of the headway made by food & beverage processors over the past few decades. Food & beverage processing plants have found innovative and unique ways to protect the environment, their communities and their own bottom lines.
Sustainability has never been a fad in the food & beverage space, and today it has evolved into corporate responsibility reporting and ESG (environmental, social and governance) initiatives, as consumers have grown much more interested in how the foods they consume impact the planet.
Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, a protein industry veteran who today serves as an independent board director for various food and agriculture companies, points out how exciting it has been to watch the evolution of thought around environmental initiatives in food processing during her multi-decade experience in the industry.
“Just 20 years ago, we talked about how many gallons of water was used, how much electricity was used and what was spent on trash removal,” says Johnson-Hoffman. “Today, we're talking about access to renewable energy for a facility, or the ability to recycle water, or ability to source sustainable materials — communicating all that to customers who have their own goals they’re trying to achieve.”
Nathan Arnold, director of client development for Hixson Architecture, Engineering & Process (www.hixson-inc.com), agrees that the tide has shifted significantly over the years.
“In the past, sustainability projects were typically an add-on for processors: If sustainability could be implemented without significant impact to the project budget, then they would be included,” he says. “While today’s sustainability project decisions are still ROI-driven, there is a heightened interest in their inclusion whenever possible.”
Most companies will perform a thorough lifecycle analysis of the impacts of their facilities, documenting the impacts and building out a continuous improvement plan to lessen them. This has produced great results for many facilities, Johnson-Hoffman adds.
“It’s a much more sophisticated approach to environmental sustainability,” she says.
Deeper dives, broader impacts
Of course, the evolution of sustainability to encompass newer areas of processing may be complicating the decision-making process for some, says Michele Boney, director of sustainability for West Liberty Foods (www.wlfoods.com).
“For a company coming into this brand new, it could be so overwhelming to try to figure out which one of these categories should I even start addressing, because they all require a lot of recordkeeping,” she says. “Do they start driving what they're doing with their waste streams? Do they start calculating greenhouse gas emissions? Food processors are big water users, so do they look at water usage?”
Arnold says the development of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) has allowed for deeper dives into their environmental impacts by companies who can manage the data properly.
“IIoT sensors and data analytics are revolutionizing plant operations by providing real-time monitoring and analysis of energy consumption, water usage, waste generation and overall plant performance,” he explains. “This data-driven approach enables precise optimization and informed decision-making for sustainable plant design and operations.”
West Liberty Foods, a protein processor out of West Liberty, Iowa, with facilities in Illinois and Utah, started on its sustainability journey some two decades ago, following ISO 14001 certified environmental management systems and focusing initially on reducing the impact of its waste streams on landfills.
Its Tremonton, Utah, facility was certified “landfill-free” in 2012, and four years later, all of its facilities had achieved the goal as well. Being landfill-free means West Liberty sourced alternative outlets for no less than 99% of its waste stream materials, from paper to plastic and organic materials. Yet, the achievement was not a finish-line type of accomplishment, Boney adds.
“Sometimes an outlet [for a waste material] will dry up, and we have to figure out what to do with the material, but we have found new technologies and companies out there evolving and driving new ideas,” she says. “We’re catching on to these companies, and then hoping it opens up to more food processors, because I want everybody else to start using these facilities instead of dumping things into the landfill.”
The challenges of old vs. new
Johnson-Hoffman believes the future is bright for the food & beverage industry becoming even more environmentally friendly, but there will always be hurdles on the journey. First, challenges arise when food processors try to retrofit solutions into older plants, where systems simply weren’t designed several decades ago with sustainability in mind.
“We're taking an older facility that has evolved over time and trying to implement the newest technologies for environmental sustainability,” she explains. “That's a big challenge, but it's worth it; the prize is so big.”
New facilities have an edge, and in the alternative protein space, Johnson-Hoffman says the pressure is on to produce the sustainability promises made in comparison to traditional animal protein processing.
Johnson-Hoffman in August joined the board of Meati Foods, which makes meat analogues from mushroom root. The company recently built its Mega Ranch factory in Boulder, Colo., and was able to control its environmental impacts from the start. Meati Foods worked with third parties to design the facility to meet the company’s targets for renewable energy use, water recirculation and greenhouse gas emissions.
“Their whole reason for being is that they're trying to bring food to people in a more sustainable way,” she says. “They’ve designed sustainability into the facility from the very beginning.”
West Liberty Foods began targeting its greenhouse gas emissions company-wide about three years ago, according to its web site, and Boney says the company has been collecting and assessing data in order to determine a truly attainable, impactful and reasonable target. When it comes to future environmental initiatives, Boney believes water usage will continue to be the king of the mountain throughout the food & beverage industry.
“It would be great if we could limit how much water we're pulling out of these aquifers and eliminate how much wastewater we’re producing,” she says. “I just see everyone battling over water in the future, and I think it's going to be a very costly thing. So, before it gets to that level, I think we all should be looking at it very closely right now.”
Hixson’s Arnold says that, although it would be a significant challenge for food & beverage plants, lowering carbon neutrality scores may be a target for processors in the future.
“Achieving carbon neutrality, or even becoming carbon negative by reducing and offsetting carbon emissions to the point where the plant's net carbon footprint is zero or negative, is most likely the ‘sustainable holy grail’ that plants would strive to achieve,” he says.
Consumers seem to be latching on to carbon footprint scores as a key sustainability measure, according to a 2023 infographic from the Hartman Group (www.hartman-group.com), a market research, analytics and consulting firm out of Bellevue, Wash. 42% of consumers familiar with the term “sustainability” include “reducing carbon footprint” in their definition of sustainability, the infographic states, which is up six points from two years ago.
All that said, for most food & beverage plants, Arnold says multiple factors — from consumer demand to return on investment to technology — would have to coalesce just right to drive the score to zero or below.
Boney says the industry should continue to build collaborative efforts when it comes to sustainable best practices and technologies that work. She says West Liberty openly shares its knowledge and insights on initiatives it has completed, particularly the landfill-free certification.
“We’re all in this together, and if one of us finds a solution, we should be sharing it with somebody else,” Boney says.
As consumers dig more deeply into processors’ impacts on the environment, collaboration may be one of the best ways to stay ahead of the curve as technology continues to spur sustainability innovation.