From The Editor | September 28, 2015

Lessons From Nestle's Zero Water Facility

By Peter Chawaga


Under pressure to avoid using Southern California’s endangered groundwater supply, Nestlé has announced plans to convert a Modesto milk factory into a “zero water” facility capable of extracting water from the materials it manufactures and reusing it for industrial processes.

The climbing costs and increased environmental pressures stemming from dwindling freshwater resources have industrial companies across the board looking for the key to reuse. There is no shortage of academic literature, new products, and corner-cutting methods that promise to stretch every drop. But sometimes it’s best to just follow the leader.

A Call To Action
Nestlé announced in May that it would transform a milk factory in Modesto, CA into a “zero water” facility, one that draws nothing from groundwater sources and extracts from the raw materials it manufactures all of the water it needs to function.

The announcement of the forthcoming change in Modesto came as part of sweeping California conservation efforts from the Swiss multinational food and beverage company. All five of the water bottling plants and four food and pet care production facilities that it operates in the state will undergo water-reducing equipment and procedure upgrades. These will include process optimization, a focus on water reuse, and the deployment of new technologies.

The efforts to transform the Nestlé bottling plants in California are estimated by the company to save over 55 MG per year.

“We are focused on how to adapt our bottling and our manufacturing operations, and our supply chain, to make them more resilient and more resistant to drought conditions,” José Lopez, Nestlé’s Head of Operations, said in the official statement announcing the changes.

The effort likely comes in response to scrutiny leveled at the company for its practice of bottling California’s groundwater for sale under its Arrowhead and Pure Life brands. The California-based “Courage Campaign” is petitioning the state’s Water Resources Control Board to put an end to all of Nestlé’s bottling operations there. The online petition has garnered over 139,000 digital signatures.

“While California is facing record drought conditions, it is unconscionable that Nestlé would continue to bottle the state’s precious water, export it, and sell it for profit,” the campaign pledge reads.

Having heard the concerns over his company’s practices during a drought that shows no signs of subsiding, Lopez acknowledged that it’s time for his multi-billion dollar company to do more to conserve water, whatever the upgrade costs.

“It doesn’t make economic sense to do this, obviously,” he told Bloomberg in May. “The drought this year is teaching us you have to think of ways to adapt. What seems today not fully advisable from an economic standpoint will become a necessity.”

Nestlé is approaching these extensive conservation efforts in dramatic fashion. The company anticipates that implementing its zero water plan at the Modesto facility will cost $7 million. This will save nearly 63 MG per year, 71 percent of its absolute withdrawals in 2014. It expects to have fully executed the changes by the end of 2016.

Realizing Change
The zero water technology is already in place and living up to its name at a Nestlé milk factory in Jalisco, Mexico.1 The achievement there serves as a starting point for the changes being made in Modesto.

“Technology we have already deployed successfully elsewhere in the world to help address the challenges of water scarcity will improve our water use efficiency, relieving pressure on California’s water resources,” Lopez said in the company’s statement.

The next step was to carefully scrutinize how things used to run in Modesto and identify room for improvement.

“We began by updating our factory water map, which includes all water users for the facility,” Nestlé told Water Innovations. “We then conducted a mini Kaizen event2 involving our factory team and various subject matter experts to identify the top water users. Following this event, we prioritized projects aimed at finding solutions to reduce, reuse, and recycle water use in our operations.”

The Nestlé team found that reuse offered the best chance to achieve zero water.

“The critical first step is to set the minimum baseline,” the company said. “From there, water reuse becomes the focal point to further the transformation [to a zero water facility]. The approach we took was to first focus on water reductions to set the baseline for minimum consumption required for our process.”

Nestlé installed evaporation technologies in Modesto which allow the plant to reuse the waste left over from making Carnation condensed milk.

“We looked at opportunities to optimize reuse water where possible, such as reusing or recycling milk water from the evaporator process that ultimately reduces overall water consumption,” Nestlé said.

Evaporator technologies are typically favored in produced water treatment, as the process isn’t particularly sensitive to traces of oil. But they are also becoming popular in industrial plants looking to increase reuse. Water recovered from evaporator systems will meet virtually all discharge specifications and is ideal for reapplication in cooling processes.

Most evaporator systems on the market consist of a falling film evaporator, followed by a crystallizer and filter press or rotary spray dryer, which separate liquids that can be reused.

In addition to evaporation upgrades, the Nestlé plant introduced a new filtration system.

“I worked with Nestlé at their Arrowhead bottled water plant in Cabazon, CA to install a filtration system on their cooling tower in order to reduce the amount of blowdown water they would send to the sewer,” said Jim Lauria, president and founder of Team Chemistry, LLC and an executive in the water technology field.3

A large air conditioner tower can discharge 70,000 gallons and evaporate 200,000 gallons of water per day, according to “Recycled Water Use In Cooling Tower Systems,” a presentation from water and wastewater consultant Paul R. Puckorius given to a WateReuse Association workshop. The practice of utilizing reused water in a cooling tower has been popular for decades because of this high consumption coupled with the fact that cooling tower water does not need to be of comparatively high quality.

When asked about other innovations that a facility eyeing water reuse might consider, Lauria pointed to a problematic industry fixture.

“One of the largest depositories of water associated with any industrial facilities is their wastewater lagoons,” he said. “These hold large volumes of water, over a large area, for long periods of time. If not properly managed, they can contaminate ground and surface water, produce greenhouse gases and noxious odors, and provide breeding grounds for mosquitos. If properly managed, on the flip side, they can be a viable source of recycled water, energy, bio-solids, and nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen.”

Where There’s A Will
Beyond the significant and vital conservation achievements these innovations will bring to Southern California, Nestlé’s zero water design serves as a template for industrial plants everywhere. If Nestlé can reduce its water use so significantly, then why can’t the next corporation? After all, the company is quick to point out that while it has been demonized for bottling California’s groundwater, its nine plants there use less than 1 billion gallons a year while the state consumes 13 trillion gallons.

“All industrial sectors have the opportunity to recover water used throughout the plants,” said Lauria. “The company must have the will to budget for treating the process water to a level that can be used for a downgraded purpose, like for cleaning, cooling, or irrigation.”

Nestlé echoes Lauria’s opinion that achieving zero water is a simple matter of wanting it badly enough.

“The largest obstacle is will,” the company said. “This is not an easy journey, and it involves a commitment from all involved. In addition, the journey involves a degree of technical knowledge. Companies need to know their process well and have the will and tenacity to proceed.”

For The Future
All told, the efforts to transform the Nestlé bottling plants in California are estimated by the company to save over 55 MG per year and reduce the absolute yearly withdrawals by 8 percent compared to 2014.

The company says it is likely it will identify and implement additional reduction methods in the near future.

“We are always looking for ways to improve our water efficiency,” Nestlé said. “In line with our 2013 ‘Commitment on Water Stewardship,’ Nestlé actively seeks new opportunities to reduce, reuse, and recycle water in our operations.”

Nestlé has teamed with the World Resource Institute to identify and alleviate the water risks inherent with its food and bottled water manufacturing operations. It claims to have 376 water-saving projects currently underway, poised to save 1.84 million cubic meters of water this year.

Whether it’s inspired by a real dedication to endangered water resources or to produce goodwill in the face of protests, the bottom line remains those gallons being saved. Few companies operate on the scale that Nestlé does, but any player in any industry can look toward the zero water facility as a guide. Starting with a commitment to change, then finding the technological solutions that are right for it, every factory can join Nestlé and milk its water for all it’s worth.

1. Nestlé announced the zero water changes there in 2014. The company estimates that this “Cero Agua” facility saves 1.6 million liters of groundwater a day.
2. A Kaizen event brings operators and managers together to review an existing process and identify areas for improvement, utilizing input from all those involved in the action. It stems from a Japanese business philosophy developed after World War II that translates to “continuous improvement.”
3. Lauria is also an author. In his introduction to Damned If We Don’t, published by Water Anthology Press, he writes: “Optimizing the water that flows into and out of industrial ecosystems challenges us to innovate. Clearly, the technology in each of those systems can be as sophisticated as possible – certainly the more sophistication we build into the system, the more efficient we can become in making every drop count.”

About The Author

Peter Chawaga is the associate editor for Water Online. He creates and manages engaging and relevant content on a variety of water and wastewater industry topics. Chawaga has worked as a reporter and editor in newsrooms throughout the country and holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism. He can be reached at