Guest Column | August 18, 2023

3 Innovative Ways PepsiCo Is Implementing Circular Water Systems

By David Grant

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The pervasive and increasing incidence of water stress could perhaps be the most clear-cut consequence of climate change. As weather patterns become increasingly erratic and destructive, floods and drought are continuing to deplete water resources. We’re no longer seeing predictable rainy and dry seasons to balance water tables. Couple this with growing and migrating populations that create an ever-increasing water demand, and the result is the undeniable water stress we’re seeing globally.

Companies are responding to the needs of the communities they serve, as well as their business' Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals, by implementing a range of water stewardship strategies. These range from basic water-use efficiency programs to more complex multi-element programs designed to reduce demand for water, protect and conserve vulnerable watersheds, and work towards more sound water governance policy.

One approach that companies have been evolving and improving is circular water systems. This draws from the more commonly known, circular economy concept, which, as explained in a September 2021 report from the World Bank, “provides a framework for redefining growth, and designing an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design, bringing benefits for society and the environment.” The bottom line of both concepts is to move away from a linear withdraw/use/dispose model to one where resource consumption is decoupled from growth — meaning as a company’s business grows, it would not need to use more natural resources to sustain it.

Within corporate water stewardship, there are several ways circularity can be achieved, at both a micro and macro level.

At the micro level, circular systems could involve initiatives within a manufacturing facility such as in-line water recycling, cascading water from one use to another with or without further treatment, and implementing innovative water recovery and reuse programs. The intent with all of these is to reduce demand on freshwater sources and maximize every drop of water to the greatest extent possible.

Two examples of what this looks like in practice within PepsiCo, as part of our PepsiCo Positive (pep+) ambition to become net water positive by 2030, demonstrate both the opportunity of in-process reuse as well as innovative cross-company water reuse.

Our snacks facility in Kolkata, India, produces approximately 49,000 tons of potato chips annually. The average potato is made up of approximately 80% water, which is released in the form of condensation when cooked to make chips. By using best-in-class technology to capture this condensation and then treating it to drinking water standards, the facility can reuse this water, reducing the amount of freshwater needed in our operations by 50% which adds up to a savings of up to 60 million liters of water per year.

In Mexico, at one of our largest food sites in the world, PepsiCo has created our first fully circular water system. For more than 200 days in 2022, the Vallejo manufacturing facility achieved zero freshwater consumption (zero liter/kg), not drawing a single drop of water from the municipal supply. While a key component of this achievement is a rigorous focus on internal recovery, treatment and reuse, this milestone would not have been achieved without nearby food companies providing their process water for reuse in the facility. This third-party water is treated along with the facility’s internal process water through an advanced membrane bioreactor to treat it to potable water standards. Often operating in the same catchment as other industrial water users, PepsiCo has replicated this approach at our plant in Itu, Brazil, and is looking at how this can be scaled in its other high water stress locations across the world.

At the macro level, attention shifts to the water source: the local watershed. Here, companies, in collaboration with other stakeholders, work toward restoring and conserving watersheds. The goal is to ensure the watersheds function in a manner that supports a sustainable, high-quality supply of water for all impacted, including the natural environment. These programs typically support water scarcity and/or water quality improvements, however, many also provide additional benefits such as carbon sequestration, socio-economic development, and increased ecosystem health.

For example, PepsiCo invested in the establishment of the Greater Cape Town Water Fund in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and other local stakeholders, including the local government of the City of Cape Town. The water fund has focused on key watersheds that supply water to Cape Town’s 4 million residents. Over two-thirds of the watersheds are invaded by invasive plants that consume more groundwater than native plants. This can damage soil ecology, increase frequency and severity of wildfires, negatively impact local biodiversity, and significantly alter river flow and aquifer recharge.

Efforts through the water fund have targeted the removal of these invasive species, with the area cleared due to PepsiCo’s contribution totaling nearly 2,500 hectares through November 2022. It has created local jobs to complete the work, and through this project, PepsiCo has contributed to approximately an additional 1.8 billion liters of water retained in the watershed instead of being lost due to invasive tree species, as quantified by a third-party assessor, LimnoTech.

In 2022, PepsiCo supported the improvement of approximately 8.7 billion liters of water across 39 high-risk catchments across the world.

Adopting a circular water approach is by no means the single solution to the emerging global water crisis, but it has the potential to play an important and complementary role in the suite of water stewardship tools that companies have at their disposal. Importantly, what it would support is reducing the overall burden that a company has on local watersheds by ensuring that every liter of freshwater withdrawn is used, treated, and then reused to the greatest extent possible. And where circularity is not possible due to the nature of ingredients or process, it is imperative that this “lost” water is compensated for through watershed-level programs.

Approximately 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water around the world today, and water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030. ‚ÄčThere is an urgent need to address the growing global water crisis, and companies can play a role by working collectively, learning from each other and scaling effective solutions. Based on the results of PepsiCo’s circular water approach, we see the potential is in reach to support a sustainable water future.

David Grant is Director of Global Water Stewardship at PepsiCo.