Unwrapping sustainability at Nestlé

10th February 2014


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the environmentalist investigates how Nestlé UK and Ireland is curbing the harmful impacts of its operations

Global food and drinks company Nestlé has committed to developing its business in a way that reduces its adverse impact on the environment and preserves natural resources for future generations. "We cannot exist without nature, but nature can exist without us," says Inder Poonaji, head of sustainability at Nestlé UK and Ireland and an IEMA member. To realise the company's vision, the UK and Ireland subsidiary has adopted a strategy based on six pillars of sustainability - energy; water; waste; biodiversity; the value chain; and community and people.

The company has launched an impressive range of initiatives at its production sites to achieve the targets set for each of these pillars (see below). Part of Nestlé's strategy involves using "lighthouse" sites to trial innovative projects that "push the envelope" of its corporate sustainability strategy. The firm's Fawdon factory near Newcastle (see below) offers successful testament to this pioneering approach; here, Nestlé learns from its implementation of groundbreaking projects before applying them elsewhere in the UK and Ireland.

Nestlé's sustainability plan for the two countries encompasses a plethora of projects, big and small, to reduce its greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, cut water and energy consumption, eradicate the waste it sends to landfill, and encourage biodiversity. These initiatives range from simple energy-saving changes to an industry first in 2012 when its entire Easter egg range was packaged in 100% recyclable materials.

Energy target setting

Nestlé UK and Ireland has developed a bespoke method to help it take action to increase resource efficiency across its production sites. In February 2012, its Girvan factory in Scotland, which manufactures milk crumb, became the first site to test the company's "energy target setting" (ETS) approach.

The ETS process involves up to 30 internal and external sustainability experts from across Europe converging on a site for 10 days to scrutinise its environmental practices. It involves in-depth studies to analyse water and energy consumption, including thermal imaging to assess heat loss.

The panel of experts often suggest the introduction of sustainability initiatives. The viability of the recommendations are closely analysed and prioritised, and Nestlé takes forward those with a business case that demonstrates a clear return on investment. The ETS exercise undertaken at Girvan resulted in a £700,000 investment plan for the site which is expected to deliver an 84% reduction in water use and a 43% reduction in energy consumption in 2014. Since the inaugural ETS at Girvan, all of Nestlé's UK sites have been assessed.

Every last drop

As part of its bid to improve water efficiency across its UK operations and halve absolute water usage by 2020, Nestlé carried out water mapping studies in 2011 at all of its manufacturing sites to identify ways of minimising consumption.

The following year, the company opened a state-of-the-art production facility at Waterswallows in Buxton. The site produces Buxton and Pure Life bottled water, and the £35 million plant was designed with cutting-edge features to reduce water use, including a sustainable drainage system to manage the rainwater that runs off the building's wave-shaped roof.

The drainage system uses sophisticated technology to mimic nature, echoing as closely as possible the natural drainage of the site to minimise the impact of the plant. It promotes environmental benefits such as the natural recharging of groundwater, as well as enabling rainwater and the wastewater from production and cleaning processes to be recovered and recycled.

Engaging with employees and suppliers to encourage more sustainable behaviour is integral to Nestlé's strategy around the six pillars, and raising awareness of water scarcity is a prime example. To mark World Water Day 2012, for example, Nestlé UK ran a nationwide programme to educate employees about water scarcity via the Food and Drink Federation's "every last drop" campaign.

On the day, staff at the firm's Croydon and York sites attended information sessions on how the company is saving water and how employees can make a difference. Posters promoting the campaign were displayed at factory sites and a photo competition encouraged employees to submit images showing themsleves saving water at home or at work.

Nestlé UK and Ireland has already reduced absolute water usage by 36% since 2006, beating its original target of 30% by 2020. Since 2001, the company has reduced water withdrawals at its factories by 28%, while at the same time increasing food and drink production by 73%.

Combating climate change

"We are committed to reducing GHGs from our operations by improving energy efficiency, switching to cleaner fuels and investing in renewable sources," says Poonaji. The company has halved GHG emissions per tonne of product from its UK factories since 2001, and more is being done. There is a range of energy-saving changes and projects underway across Nestlé's sites.

At its Girvan factory, for example, the company has replaced five boilers that ran on heavy fuel oil with two new gas-fired boilers, saving 6,000 tonnes of GHG emissions a year. Meanwhile, Poonaji says that Nestlé's new factory in Buxton is one of the most efficient bottling plants of its kind in the world. Inside the factory, heat generated by the bottling lines is used to warm the warehouse and office areas - helping to reduce energy consumption and GHGs - while low-energy lighting further increases energy efficiency. For every 1,000 bottles of water produced, the plant uses around 32kWh of electricity. This equates to an energy saving of 20% compared to the old site.

Nestlé is also working to minimise the environmental impact of its transport and distribution network by using lower emitting vehicles and, where possible, selecting alternative modes of transport. "Our ambition is to reduce our CO2 emissions and ultimately become less reliant on fossil fuels," says Poonaji.

"In 2010, we began trialling liquefied methane-powered trucks, which can significantly reduce CO2 and other air emissions," he says. During the trial, the three trucks travelled 225,000km and carried 25,800 tonnes. The results showed that the vehicles saved 40,275 litres of diesel and achieved a CO2 equivalent reduction of 25.4 tonnes. The pilot proved that liquefied methane-powered trucks are reliable and a feasible alternative to vehicles fuelled by diesel, says Poonaji.

Zero waste and less packaging

Nestlé UK and Ireland is well on its way to achieving its target for all 14 of its sites to send zero waste to landfill by 2015 (excluding a minimum amount of hazardous waste). In 2006, the sites collectively sent 695,700 tonnes of waste to landfill, reports Poonaji. In 2013, the amount going to landfill had fallen to less than 50 tonnes. Ninety per cent of the packaging used for Nestlé products in the UK is recyclable, and the company reuses or recovers more than 80% of the waste generated in its factories.

Nestlé Tutbury, in South Derbyshire, is the home of several Nescafé products, including Dolce Gusto, Nescafé Original and Gold Blend. The site is a typical example of how the firm is achieving its zero waste goal. At the factory, areas are dedicated to each of its 16 waste streams so that materials can be monitored and segregated. Waste from onsite contractors is managed in the same way, providing a uniform approach across the plant. As well as training and engaging employees and contractors in its waste strategy, the company has invested in balers to ease the handling and management of packaging waste.

Since 2006, Nestlé has reduced the primary packaging of its products by more than 16%. One example of this approach is the lighter packaging being used for Nescafé compact refill packs - the new 150g refills use 30% less material than the previous refill packs and are more space efficient. Twice as many fit on to a pallet, reducing lorry journeys by more than 50%.

Poonaji says Nestlé UK and Ireland is proud of what it has achieved so far within its six pillars of sustainability; but he acknowledges more needs to be done, confirming that the firm is committed to pioneering innovative ways to improve its environmental performance.

To read more about Nestlé UK and Ireland's sustainability commitments and its Fawdon factory click here

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