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Case Study: How PepsiCo Aims to be a lot More Water Efficient

(Photo: PepsiCo global headquarters in Purchase, New York. Credit: PepsiCo)

PepsiCo recognizes the critical role water plays in the food system. To that end, it has created several programs that center on water-use efficiency and safe-water access. It is aiming to replenish more water than it uses, which would place it among the most water-efficient food or beverage manufacturers operating in high-risk watersheds. Roberta Barbieri, vice president of sustainability at PepsiCo talked with Environmental about how the company has been aggressively transforming itself to advance its goal to be Net Water Positive by 2030. 

The Problem: 

Water is critical to human existence — including the production of food. But water access is a problem and notably, the lack of safe and clean drinking water supplies. The climate crisis is making the matter more urgent. PepsiCo is focused on ensuring people around the world have such access, making its goal of being “water positive” an imperative. 

It therefore will reduce absolute water use and replenish all of the water it uses by sending it back into the local watershed. This will happen at its company-owned sites and third-party locations in high-water-risk areas.

“As a food and beverage company, we are acutely aware of the critical role water plays in the food system,” says Barbieri. “We want to leave water resources in a better state everywhere PepsiCo operates. Our long-term water strategy aims to help achieve sustainable water security for the business, natural ecosystems, and the local communities that depend on an accessible and reliable supply of clean, safe water.

“PepsiCo has a goal to improve our agricultural water use efficiency by 15% by 2025 against a 2015 baseline,” she says. “We are also working to be net water positive by 2030, replenishing back into the watershed more water than we use.” 

The Solution:

PepsiCo has several initiatives that focus on saving water and making it cleaner. Some of them: 

— deploying a new technology to recover more than half of the water used when it makes potato chips. It does so by condensing and treating the steam evaporated from its fryers. 

— investing $2 million for the Colorado River Basin. It is working to restore the perennial flows of the Colorado River by constructing a mile-long channel to bypass the Windy Gap Reservoir. PepsiCo is also making a $5 million investment in the Colorado River Basin Fund which is focused on incubating technology solutions to address water scarcity in this critical watershed.

— expanding safe water access to an additional 8 million people in 2021. Since the effort began in 2006, the company has helped provide safe water access to 68 million people, with a goal of reaching 100 million by 2030. To continue to advance this goal, it is granting $1.5 million over three years to two new water stewardship programs in Latin America and Nigeria.

— scaling up drip irrigation technology to conserve soil nutrients and to minimize or prevent waste. It is doing so in India, Vietnam, and the United States. Thus far, it says that it has seen improved crop yields, reduced fertilizer usage, and 50% less water consumed compared to flood irrigation. PepsiCo says that it is committed to helping farmers adopt these technologies. 

launching a $1 million program with WaterAid to bring safe water to families in Sub-Saharan Africa. The PepsiCo Foundation has invested more than $53 million in safe water access. Its program reaches more than 20 countries and it has helped more than 59 million people since 2006.

A reduction in water usage will be met by adopting “operational best-in-class or world-class efficiency standards. Raising the efficiency standard at company-owned sites in high-risk watersheds alone will allow PepsiCo to avoid using more than 11 billion liters of water a year. That is a 50% decline. 

Moreover, “Last fall, we announced pep+ (PepsiCo Positive) our end-to-end transformation to put sustainability at the center of how we create value for people and the planet,” says Barbieri. “And it truly is end to end. We’re doing everything from scaling regenerative agriculture, to adopting renewable electricity, to improving the efficiency of our fleet. 

“PepsiCo is constantly looking for innovative ways to become more efficient, whether that is by forging new partnerships or developing new technologies in-house,” she adds. “For example, we’re using potato peelings in anaerobic digesters to power our manufacturing plants before turning that waste into fertilizer for future crops. We’re capturing steam off our potato chip fryers to recycle the water and make electricity. We’re helping to scale a gravity-fed drip irrigation system that is easy to operate and requires no pumps or power source.” 

The Results:

PepsisCo says that it is achieving a quick return on investment. It is doing so by improving crop yields, reducing electricity usage, and improving water efficiencies. To that end, it is becoming a better environmental citizen. Not only is its water footprint less but so too is it carbon footprint. 

For example, it has partnered with N-Drip to pilot drip irrigation technology. And where this happening, farmers are improving their crop yields and reducing their fertilizer usage. It is using 50% less less compared to flood irrigation. And its anaerobic digestor uses food waste to generate nearly 75% of the electricity at the Bursom Road Walkers factory in Leicester. That helps ensure that it sends \ zero waste to landfills. 

Previous pilots of the fertilizer helped UK growers achieve a 50% cut in their water use and carbon emissions, says Barbier. Once supplied at scale, the fertilizer is expected to reduce our potato-based carbon emissions by 70%.

The food and beverage maker is also working to capture steam at its potato chip manufacturing facility in Kolkata, India. The proof-of-concept showed the approach could save as much as 60 million liters of water per year. Over the next seven years, the technology is expected to be adopted at nearly 30 potato chip manufacturing plants in high-water risk areas. By capturing and condensing the steam, PepsiCo is able to not only recover water during the condensation process but also repurpose the heat for cooling or convert it into electricity by passing it through turbines. 

“Success looks different for every project and program, and while results and timelines vary, our transformation is a journey and we are all committed to continual progress until we achieve our 2040 net-zero target, net water positive commitments, and all our other pep+ goals,” says Barbieri. “Our aim is to identify promising solutions like these, demonstrate their viability, and scale them where it makes sense. We have teams all over the world to help do just that.” 

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