As essential as it is for beverage manufacturing, water has long been taken for granted, both in terms of availability and quality. This is changing, as droughts in California and chronic water shortages in other parts of the world begin to impact food industry profits. U.S. beverage manufacturers are also realizing the potential dangers they face from using municipal water, which may be contaminated with lead, chemicals, and microorganisms, as their primary ingredient and for plant cleaning and cooling. And despite newly enacted EPA and FDA regulations, significant oversight gaps remain when it comes to water use in beverages.
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It’s not surprising, then, that water issues are becoming more prominent with the domestic and international beverage industries.
“Water quality is among our industry’s highest priorities,” says William M. Dermody Jr., vice president, policy, American Beverage Association (ABA), the U.S. non-alcoholic beverage trade group. “Every [member] company has robust processes in place to ensure water purity, and the beverage industry supports and depends on a safe and high-quality municipal water infrastructure,” he tells Food Quality & Safety magazine. ABA’s membership includes the “big-three” beverage makers—The Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which together account for about two-thirds of the U.S. soft drink manufacturing market.
Carbonated soft drinks comprise about 45 percent of the U.S. non-alcoholic beverage industry’s revenue, followed by fruit juices and beverages (15 percent); bottled waters (13 percent); functional beverages, such as energy, relaxation drinks, and ready-to-drink teas and coffees (11 percent); sports drinks (8 percent); and ice manufacturing, dairy- and soy-based drinks (7 percent), according to an analysis by ChangeLab Solutions. The ABA estimates the non-alcoholic beverage industry contributes about $169 billion to the U.S. economy annually. Worldwide sales of soft drinks and bottled water exceed $260 billion annually, according to the market research firm IBISWorld. So much of what is at stake depends on water.
Managing Water Usage
This, of course, is because water is the primary ingredient of beverage products, constituting 90 percent of sugar-sweetened soft drinks and up to 99 percent of diet sodas. But beverage manufacturers, like other food producers, also use water for material washing and moving, cooling and air conditioning, and equipment cleaning and disinfecting. In fact, two-thirds of all non-product water used in food production is for cleaning in place and heat exchange (cooling towers), according to a recent whitepaper from Haskell, an engineering and design firm. The remaining one-third is split between manual cleaning, sanitization, and miscellaneous utility demands. Coca-Cola’s bottling facility in Detroit consumes an average of 1.7 gallons of municipal water per gallon of finished product, according to a 2012 University of Michigan study. While that continues to be the average ratio, Coca-Cola says some of its bottling plants have reduced it to 1.4:1.
To enhance in-plant water conservation, Coca-Cola and most large beverage manufacturers treat non-product water for reuse. Spent water can be treated using a variety of techniques, among them membrane filtration, reverse osmosis, UV and ozone disinfection, and nano-filtration, depending on the water’s quality and subsequent application. To be used for cleaning, for example, recycled water must be at least of drinking water quality and even higher if intended for boiler makeup. Rather than discharging reclaimed water, facilities can use it for warehouse floor washing or landscaping.
While conservation at the manufacturing level is important, a much larger issue is total water usage, or the “water footprint,” which extends back to crop cultivation (typically sugar beets) and sweetener production (wet milling). In a study done jointly with the Nature Conservancy, Coca-Cola estimates it has a 70:1 total water ratio, meaning every 1 liter of finished product requires 30 liters of green water (rain water stored in the ground), 16 liters of blue water (surface and groundwater), and 24 liters of grey or waste water (water spent or used to assimilate the pollution load).