Part 2: Water as a commodity – how are food and drink manufacturers driving efficiency in their usage of water?

In our previous blog, Rob Wilkinson associate director at Integrated Food Projects, and Søren Nøhr Bak, expertise director – water at NIRAS, explored the importance of water efficiency in the food and drink manufacturing sector, discussing the rise of awareness around the importance of water usage and highlighting the key drivers of change.

In the second blog on this topic, Rob and Søren will explore what food and drink manufacturers are doing to drive efficiency in water usage, and look ahead at what further solutions and strategies could be implemented to tackle this vital component of planet health.

The importance of water usage in the food and drink manufacturing sector is growing, being driven particularly by the climate crisis and increasing challenges around droughts and flooding, as well as the economic drivers of cost-savings and societal pressure from consumers.

If sustainable performance is going to be an important consideration for a brand, they have to have visibility and control over water usage across their end-to-end supply chain.

Driving change in agriculture

It’s no secret that the majority of water usage, as well as carbon emissions, occur in the agricultural process. According to the World Bank, agriculture accounts for around 70 per cent of water usage globally.

If a product has environmental targets, then the area you can have the biggest impact is agriculture, so for brands looking to drive efficiencies in water usage across their supply chains, this will naturally be a key area of focus.

We are seeing a number of in-field technological developments, such as precision irrigation, which can apply water and fertiliser to a growing crop only when it’s needed and in the quantities required, and this is helping to reduce the volume of water used in the growing stage.

However, there are bigger benefits to be found in the initial choice of crop and seed development, which provides more control around total water usage. In theory, this could lead to a situation where some specific products ‘win’ the sustainability battle. Potatoes, for example, require smaller amounts of water than rice, so in the future we could see an increased movement towards products which have a smaller impact on the environment.

Consumer awareness

Consumer education could help to reduce water usage in other areas. The household cleaning sector has made great progress with the use of concentrate products, where consumers can add water to a washing up liquid at home.

These products do not necessarily reduce the amount of water used in the product as it is used, but can dramatically reduce water usage in the manufacturing and cleaning process, as well as reducing road miles and packaging materials required to get the end product into a customer’s home.

This is not a new idea, concentrate orange juice is commonplace in the US for example, but different consumer groups have different levels of comfort with concentrated food and drink products.

The recent relaunch of the SodaStream machine is a sign that consumers are increasingly willing to embrace adding water at home, but convenience is key – adding extra steps to the process of consuming the end product reduces the possibility of consumers buying something.

It is clear that further education and marketing efforts are required for this idea to truly take off. The key for large-scale success will be to educate and persuade customers that the new, concentrate product is exactly the same as the alternative – but better for the environment.

Although consumer education is a vital part of longer-term water efficiency, there are steps that manufacturers can take inside their own factories, which not only helps to market the end-product as a more sustainable option, but that have a huge impact on planet health as well as on the bottom line.

Ensuring efficiency within plants

Technology is evolving within factories to allow manufacturers to reduce the amount of water used in processes.

Significant water savings can be found in the cleaning process, moving from a high volume, low pressure washing system to one which uses a low volume of water at a higher pressure could deliver huge improvements in efficiency.

The FluiVac line cleaning technology at innocent drinks’ factory in Rotterdam is one example which helps reduce water usage by 80 to 90 per cent compared to a traditional cleaning in progress (CIP) system.

Other simple measures can offer massive improvements in water usage. Using electrical conductivity to measure water flow and automatic stops can identify any leaks at an early stage, and flow meters and local metering at precise locations presents manufacturers with instant visibility of where water is being used or lost.

Cleaning is likely to be the biggest culprit for water usage in most factories, so switching to a constant, rather than peak, cleaning regime, as well as ensuring that things stay clean, can help to reduce water use in wash downs.

Developing partnerships

Taking a holistic view about the local context of manufacturing plants will be key to any long-term solutions. While carbon emissions are global and the context is the same around the world, water health is much more nuanced at a regional or local region. Water stewardship, where the industry takes greater responsibility for the water it’s using, will be an important consideration to make effective partnerships that maximise the local context.

Co-locating, where two manufacturers locate next to each other to share resources is already happening in some sectors. This may expand further to allow cooperative businesses to locate on the same site to maximise each other’s waste materials. For example, Norway’s TINE dairy factory in Jæren is located next to greenhouses growing tomatoes, which make use of the excess low temperature heat and CO2 from the natural gas combustion in the dairy.

This process would take a long time to play out and this type of major infrastructure engineering often requires government planning or external funding.

While this type of approach could be a long-term vision, partnerships which look at the local community around a manufacturer are already helping to improve water efficiency and health. As manufacturing technology continues to develop, some communities may be having a bigger impact on local water security than the manufacturers.

Coca Cola is one brand which is putting local partnerships in place to support water stewardship, establishing water-saving programmes for local schools for example. Brands and manufacturers could also plant trees on river banks to prevent erosion or work with farmers to provide pumps on their farms, rather than taking their cattle to the river and polluting the water system.

It is clear that water sustainability is an issue for the industry to tackle now, and consideration must be given across the entire supply chain, including at the agriculture stage. Water sustainability, like reducing carbon emissions, will soon become a license to operate, as scrutiny increases around the health and supply of our water supplies.

Food and drink manufacturers can have a huge impact on water use, much more than in domestic settings, so it is critical for planet health that the industry takes ownership to set and achieve ambitious goals on water efficiency.

Learn more about the wider context of sustainability in the food and drink manufacturing sector.


Integrated Food Projects have partnered with Kettleby Foods on a number of high-profile multi-million pound capital projects since 2003/4, helping the business to develop and grow. Throughout that time they have provided cost-effective and efficient solutions on development projects both at our existing ready meals production facility and also in creating a new satellite facility. The projects at our existing facility were managed without impact on our ability to service our own clients, and all projects have been delivered within budget, in a timely fashion and to the requisite standards of safety and quality. Their team work ethos and professional approach ensure successful projects and I would utilise Integrated Food Projects in the future without hesitation.

- Jarrod Thorndyke, Production Director

I have worked with Integrated Food Projects on many capital expenditure projects since 2004, the latest being the development of the new plot of land adjacent to our main site. They successfully employed a project delivery process to ensure the integration of a leased modular building solution with the development of the site infrastructure to improve logistics and Health and Safety. Their staff are always positive and enthusiastic and have fostered a team-work approach ensuring another successful project delivered. I look forward to working with them again in the near future.

- Engineering Manager, Major UK Ready Meals Manufacturer