Food manufacturing that's lean and green saves money

By Alyson Magee

- Last updated on GMT

Anaerobic digestion can help firms save money
Anaerobic digestion can help firms save money

Related tags Waste management Anaerobic digestion Recycling

By reducing the waste they generate, food firms can save money as well as proving themselves more environmentally responsible.

By reducing the waste they generate, food firms can save money as well as proving themselves more environmentally responsible.

Uncertainty over the future of EU regulations and the economy are unlikely to dampen growing commitment to sustainable waste management among British food and drink manufacturers. Firms recognise the benefits of efficient waste management from bottom line cost savings to meeting greener responsibility, regulatory, market and consumer demands.

Having previously been cited as the worst offender in Europe, the UK has become a leader in reducing food waste, according to Ignacio Gavilan, director of sustainability at the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF).

In May, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) published a report, Quantification of food surplus, waste and related materials in the grocery supply chain, which identifies an annual 1.9Mt of food waste in the UK grocery supply chain, including 1.7Mt from food manufacture. While highlighting good progress in reducing food waste, the report sets a target of a further 450,000t reduction a year by 2025, which will form part of the Courtauld Commitment 2025, a 10-year voluntary agreement managed by WRAP.

“As we see it, sustainability and issues around waste management are becoming ever more important in global food and drink supply chains,”​ says Matthew Hindle, head of policy at the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA), the trade association for the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry in the UK. “There is increasing consumer awareness of, and demand for, products sourced responsibly.”

Siltbuster Process Solutions (SPS), a supplier of mobile and permanent solutions for the treatment of effluent in the food and drink industry, also reports increasing interest.

“We have just conducted research among leading food and drink producers, and 79% said waste reduction was a production priority; 63% want to reduce water use; 32% are trying to reuse more water; 21% want to reduce the treatment charges they pay to their utility company; and over one in five want to use waste to create energy,”​ says Rich Matthews, general manager at SPS.

Turnaround in attitudes (Back to top)

Chris Oldfield, chairman of food waste shredder manufacturer Untha UK, says: “Over the last three years or so we’ve seen something of a turnaround in attitudes, which now sees farmers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and other relevant stakeholders working harder.

“Buyers are increasingly looking at food manufacturers’ CSR [corporate social responsibility] stance, for example; keen to ensure they mirror the sustainability ethics that are being encouraged throughout the industry.

“There’s a newfound level of transparency in the sector. Manufacturers, therefore, need to actively demonstrate that they’re being ‘green’, as much to maintain their reputation as to secure the next contract.”

Gavin Williams, director of recycling and integrated resource management at Biffa, recommends businesses look beyond cheapest cost solutions to “investment in a more comprehensive and fully-consultative waste management strategy”​, which “can deliver much greater long-term cost and efficiency benefits.”

Furthermore, “employing a person in your team who is responsible for auditing your waste will make it much easier to keep track of your processes and the quantities of waste being produced”, he says. “It will also facilitate a collaborative partnership with waste management suppliers.”

Williams also advises companies appoint a steering group to represent their procurement, finance and operations departments in particular to “guarantee that your agreed waste strategy reaches all areas and levels of the business,”​ while a zero waste culture should be instilled across the business.

Gavilan at CGF suggests manufacturers go even further and aim to not only control their own waste management but also exert influence upstream and downstream.

For Dr Manoj Dora, lecturer in operations and supply chain management at Brunel University London, sustainable waste management needs to address efficient use of resources to minimise waste in production, while also minimising its impact on the environment.

To encourage adoption of a circular economy principle encompassing reduction, reuse and recycling, Dora says businesses should develop innovative business models incentivising food supply chain members to follow sustainable waste management strategies.

“With appropriate technology and strategy, food waste can generate renewable energy, enhance the soil as a fertiliser, and feed animals,”​ says Dora, while further potential uses for surplus food include sending it to charities and social enterprises or offering employees discounts on food on its last day of shelf-life.

Anaerobic digestion growth (Back to top)

Progress is notable in the UK’s AD infrastructure, says Hindle, with the number of AD sites handling food waste doubling in the past five years.

Barrow Green Gas (BGG) lays claim as the UK’s leading green gas supplier, focusing solely on the biomethane market. Among its clients are cheese producer Wyke Farms (see picture on p35), which produces biomethane from dairy and farm waste for use on site with the excess supplied to the gas grid. Wyke Farms uses green gas, supplied via BGG, to provide energy for its cheese manufacturing plant on a different site and, in early 2016, announced a partnership with Sainsbury to supply green gas for its stores.

“Some companies already use their own waste to make green gas,”​ says Tim Davies, md of BGG. “This green gas can drive their own production processes directly or be used to generate electricity, giving a company their own energy supply and reduced costs. Green gas can also be injected into the gas grid, giving an additional source of revenue.”

BGG is also working with Sainsbury and food waste recycling and waste management service company ReFood on a separate project, involving the collection of food waste by the retailer for conversion into gas by ReFood.

Tamar Energy (see picture below), a waste solutions provider which also operates composting plants, recently opened a fifth AD plant in the south of England. The new food waste recycling plant, in Hertfordshire, will recycle up to 66,000t/year of food waste and generate up to 3MW/h of renewable energy, which will power more than 6,000 homes, as well as producing biofertiliser for agricultural use.

In addition to accepting kerbside household food waste from Essex County Council, a number of high-profile commercial and industrial food producers across the region will send food waste to the plant for recycling. “AD is the cost-effective choice for recycling unavoidable food waste and is also a transparent way for local authorities and businesses to showcase their green credentials,”​ says Dean Hislop, chief executive of Tamar.

Stowmarket-based Muntons, a global supplier of malts, malt extracts, flours and flakes as well as beer, wine and cider making kits, unveiled a new £5.4M AD plant last year, which helped it attain zero waste to landfill in May this year (see panel story on p38). “We have worked hard over the past decade to reduce year-on-year the levels of total waste produced and waste disposed of via landfill,”​ says Dr Nigel Davies, director of manufacturing and sustainability at Muntons.

“We are proud to announce a figure of zero [waste] to landfill. However, we also believe there is more that can be done. We are keen to further demonstrate our commitment to the circular economy and show that sustainability can bring in revenue and offset other cost for our business, our environment and society.”

While many manufacturers are reaping the benefits of AD, ADBA chief executive Charlotte Morton is concerned that falling government incentives and funding caps are hindering “renewable technologies’ efforts to scale and improve their cost competitiveness”.

ADBA is critical of the latest consultation by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which covers generation tariffs for AD, micro-combined heat and power and sustainability criteria and feedstock restrictions for AD, and closed on July 7.

“This consultation does nothing to address DECC’s fundamental lack of ambition for AD and community-scale renewables,”​ says Morton. “Instead, it proposes restrictions to plant sizes and feedstocks that will make it even harder to deploy viable AD plants using waste, crops or agricultural residues.”

Reduced incentives for AD are not bemoaned by all, though, with some believing it may not be the best use of waste food. “Where waste does arise, attempts should be made to reuse it,”​ says Oldfield at Untha UK. “So, if it is still fit for human consumption, it should be donated to food banks. After that, there are recycling options, thanks to innovations within companies that can now process the food for use in nutrient-rich animal feeds, for instance. Only then, when these options have been exhausted, should AD be considered.”

Middlesex-based Belazu Ingredient Company has embraced sustainable waste management without feeding into the AD sector. In late 2013, Belazu began working with waste management business Veris Strategies on the recommendation of a customer, Adelie Foods, and increased its waste streams from two to over 10.

Belazu introduced a stakeholder campaign, Ready, Steady, Green!, aimed at encouraging its employees to embrace its new waste management strategy through interactive workshops, creative visual communication tools and reward and recognition. The campaign has since been rolled into a wider CSR project, The Journey Matters, which also targets water and energy usage reductions.

“Our communication and engagement strategy has been essential in enabling us to hit our zero waste and recycling target of 90%,”​ says operations director Derek Wiles, with Belazu opting to divert surplus food waste to community partners rather than treating it via AD. “Ultimately, we want to become a positive impact business with real purpose at the heart of what we do.”

New technology is also helping businesses reduce the environmental impact of wastewater from food and drink manufacturing sites.

NCH Europe recently launched a new two-part wastewater treatment system that is said to be 1,000-times more powerful than standard powder or liquid bacterial formulations. Using the BioAmp automated, computer-controlled delivery system, FreeFlow products containing live bacteria to degrade carbohydrates, proteins, animal and cooking fats, oils and grease are used to treat wastewater.

“As governments across the globe push more towards sustainability, legislation is becoming increasingly stringent around what, and how, effluent can be disposed of into local sewer systems and waterways,”​ says Mario Kelly, vice president of the Wastewater Innovation Platform at NCH Europe. “While companies are aware of the necessity to remove fats and chemicals from their wastewater, they are not always aware that many common effluent treatment solutions simply liquefy contaminants only for them to reappear further down the line, causing problems for local authorities.”

SPS, meanwhile, helps companies improve their wastewater strategy, boost treatment capacity, cope with peak season surges in effluent production and reduce Mogden charges as calculated by water and sewerage companies to collect, treat and dispose of effluent.

Manufacturers are using SPS’s packaged dissolved air flotation (DAF) wastewater treatment system to reduce charges and feed into AD plants, says Matthews.

“For instance, we’ve installed DAF treatment plants at Ballyrashane Creamery, and Dartmouth Foods, the shredded duck and chicken company,”​ he says. “Both of these businesses have a lot of fat in their waste and in both instances our plant has been designed to help keep the sites compliant, help reduce the cost of waste treatment and to also support the energy plans at the site.”

Meanwhile, in addition to technical advances, “there are important business management practices introduced in sustainable business management”​, says Dora. “For instance, closed-loop supply chain and reverse logistics integrate components such as product design, performance measurement, and value recovery measures across the food value chain,”​ he says.

Another advance is circular thinking, in which resources are in use for as long as possible. It allows the extraction of maximum value, before materials are recovered at the end of their service life, he adds. Furthermore, the Internet of Things and Big Data are playing a significant role in sustainable waste management through data-driven logistical planning, which could make waste management cheaper, he adds.

“Finally, the introduction of new management practices such as lean and six sigma can decisively improve sustainable waste management initiatives and make them more efficient and effective by reducing the costs and improving quality and delivery,”​ says Dora.

Muntons boosts green credentials with sand filtration (Back to top)

Muntons, has raised its sustainability credentials even further following the completion of new anaerobic digestion facilities at its Suffolk site by installing a sand filtration system to cope with increased wastewater capacity.

Muntons’ £5.4M anaerobic digestion (AD) plant at Stowmarket generated 1MkWh of electricity in its first 10 months of operation. The maltster turned to global water management specialist Hydro International to supply, install and commission a DynaSand filter to treat additional wastewater at the site, which produces some 120,000t/year of ale, lager and food malts.

The DynaSand provides tertiary effluent treatment, helping to ensure that Muntons meets its environmental commitment to protecting water quality discharged into the River Gipping, which runs along the perimeter of its site. The sand filter has been retrofitted alongside an existing filtration unit to meet Environment Agency consents of 30mg/l of total suspended solids (TSS) with daily capacity of up to 1,500m3.

The low-maintenance design and durability of the DynaSand are important considerations, says environmental manager Ryland Cairns: “Muntons stands strongly by its ethos of ‘practical sustainability’ and the Hydro International solution was chosen for its ease of operation and its reliability. These were essential considerations for ensuring we continue to meet consents and protect the local aquatic environment.”

Wastewater treatment at Muntons’ Stowmarket site is split between two distinct effluent types. High volumes of effluent with a low chemical oxygen demand (COD), at around 2,000mg/l, come from the steeping of the barley grains and are treated by the company’s existing aerobic plant.

“Lower volumes of high COD washwater from the malting process, at about 30,000mg per litre, are treated via the new anaerobic digestion facility prior to subsequent aerobic treatment. The DynaSand filter provides the final polishing of water following the aerobic process and before it is discharged into the river,”​ says Cairns.

By keeping waste treatment on site and using a biogas process to generate electricity, Muntons’ AD plant will save 3,000 tanker movements a year, produce up to 3,000t of high quality biofertiliser, and contribute to 25% of on-site electricity demand.

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