From The Editor | May 2, 2024

From Scarcity To Stewardship To Sustainability


By Kevin Westerling,

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Every drop of water counts, but when we talk about our collective conservation efforts for the greater good, it’s natural to think about high-volume users. Those users are generally on the industrial side of things — agriculture, of course; the energy industry, with its intractable relationship to water; and also the food and beverage industry. Thankfully, there are leaders in these spaces who not only understand the need for sustainable water management — they pioneer it.

Foremost among them is David Grant, senior director of global climate and water solutions at PepsiCo. Under his guidance, the company launched an ambitious water conservation and efficiency program tied to specific targets and deadlines — then outperformed their own aggressive goals. In this Q&A, David shares the keys to the program’s success, including the technologies, policies, and culture driving it, as well as his thoughts on the need for broader water stewardship and his vision for advancing sustainability in the future.

PepsiCo reached its 2025 water efficiency goal two years early. First, what was the goal?

David Grant, PepsiCo

PepsiCo has a very long history with water stewardship — it’s been integral to the company — and in 2021, when we launched our PepsiCo Positive (pep+) strategy, we continued to put a very strong emphasis on water. One of our goals was to improve operational water use efficiency by 25% by 2025 for all our highwater-risk operations globally.

PepsiCo hit that goal in 2023, two years ahead of schedule. How did you do it?

If I start from the bottom up, one of our core programs is our resource conservation program called ReCon, which focuses on people, process, and technology. The aim is to ensure that all of our systems are operating at their most efficient benchmarks, before we even start looking at advanced technology. And we do that through our people such as the plant operations employees, engineers, and corporate and sector sustainability teams, making sure they have the right training and they’re on board with the goal, because we need to win hearts and minds as well. We need to make sure people understand it and our ambition around it.

On the process side, it’s making sure we have the right tools in place and the data and systems to help enable our people to work toward this water journey. When we’re at the point where all our operations are running as efficiently as we can get them, then we start looking at the more advanced technologies.

Can you describe some of those advanced technologies and how they’re used to save water?

Part of our journey to reduce water consumption is the extent to which we can essentially recover process water — treat it to potable water standards and bring it back into the process again. So, we’re now employing membrane bioreactors in 21 facilities across the world, allowing us to drive down freshwater consumption by about 70%.

On the beverage side of the business, one of the largest areas where water is consumed is in our water treatment room. As we bring in water from a utility, a borewell, or wherever it’s coming from, we need to treat it to a quality that meets our high quality and safety standards. Typically, we do that by using reverse osmosis (RO), but with traditional RO, you get quite a high reject rate — 30% to 40%. By including additional filtration after that process, either ultrafiltration or closed-circuit reverse osmosis, we’re taking that reject and treating it again to extract additional freshwater volume from the reject stream, going from roughly 60% efficiency to around 90%. That’s much less demand that we’re putting on freshwater sources coming into our site.

In our potato chip factories — and this was an innovation that came out of our Indian business — they’ve figured out how to capture the moisture that typically gets evaporated when you cook potatoes, which are 80% water. They got together, put in a process, and now we’re capturing the condensation that comes out of the fryer, treating it, and then reusing it, saving up to 60 million liters of water per site per year.

The key to all of this as well is our ability to scale. We utilize a number of mechanisms to scale technology — for example, we use platforms such as communities of practice and different technical forums to showcase best practices and share those technologies as much as possible with our facilities around the globe so that we can have a collective, accelerated journey toward water stewardship.

Finally, I’d like to mention digitization. In our beverage plants, for example, we’ve digitized sub-metering to get very accurate reads in terms of where water’s going and where it’s being used, and we get immediate feedback if something’s going wrong. If there’s a leak somewhere, operators can address it right away. In the past, operators would be walking around with a clipboard taking readings and then get to the issue a day or two later. Through digitization, we have real-time information that significantly helps to manage the process, identify the issues, and get on top of them as soon as possible.

How do you know it’s the right time to embrace and invest in water reuse, digitalization, and other water-saving practices from an ROI point of view? Some here in the U.S., outside the water-scarce Southwest, may not see the value.

I think we need to be careful about pigeonholing water in terms of costs. We need to have a very holistic view of the associated benefits that accrue as a result of implementing a new technology.

One of the tools that we use is the “true cost of water.” There’s often this thought that water is cheap, but when you start integrating everything that touches water into that calculation — bringing water onto a site, the treatment cost, chemical costs, energy costs, pumping the water around your site, treating the water again at the tail end of your process — you add all that up and you have a dollar amount per liter or gallon or whatever metric you want to use to know the true cost of water. That equation changes quite significantly. It’s not a case of just taking your raw water costs and trying to work out return on investment based on that. You need to figure out the true value chain costs based on your process. And there’s no reason why anyone anywhere couldn’t be doing this.

Even if you’re in a seemingly “water-rich” area?

We can’t be complacent, right? I think there’s this risk that we sit back and think that water scarcity is somebody else’s problem. If we take that attitude, we aren’t going to get anywhere. And the risk is that we end up in a situation like Cape Town, South Africa, where they were getting close to a “Day Zero” scenario. You want to take action way before you can get close to that point.

My recommendation would be that every company get a good idea of where they sit in terms of water stress. There are so many global tools available right now to enable that. But even if you’re in a non-high-water-risk area, you still need to think about these things because non-high-risk areas become high-risk areas when water is used without any notion of stewardship.

What’s next in PepsiCo’s sustainability journey?

Well, we’ve got our 2030 goals that are just around the corner. For water use efficiency, we’re going to be pursuing “best in class” for our high-water-risk sites and “world class” for our non-high-water-risk sites — recognition of the fact that it’s important to take action in non-high-water-risk areas, as well, to your last question.

We’re setting those goals not only for PepsiCo operations but for our third-party manufacturers as well, increasing the scope quite significantly. We’ve set a watershed health goal of replenishing more than 100% of the water that we use by 2030. The objective is to drive down water consumption as much as we can, and whatever amount we do use, we aim to replenish back into the watershed and then some.

From a PepsiCo point of view, we’re putting a really strong emphasis on recovery and reuse within the system in an effort to extract the most value out of every single drop. And that’s going to be key everywhere — not just at PepsiCo, but for any industry.

It’s incumbent upon all stakeholders, really. Whether you’re a business, household, government, or NGO, there’s a need for us all to act in unison and collaborate to solve the water problem. And we are making progress — we see it everywhere. But I would probably suggest that both the pace and scale need to increase, for everyone. I hope the actions we’re taking at PepsiCo can serve as inspiration, and we’re always looking to bring others along on our journey.