Corporate environmentalism has a squishy, public relations feel. When sustainable practices shaped a Gatorade plant, there was actual meat on the bones.

Mountains offer spectacular vistas but construction challenges. More than a million cubic yards of earth and rock were shifted to create a level surface for Gatorade’s 950,000-sq.-ft. Blue Ridge plant. On the upside, a massive retention pond (foreground) reduces storm runoff to below preconstruction levels. Source: The Gatorade Co.


The greening of corporate America was just budding when planning got underway for Pepsico’s Gatorade project in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia. The corporation formed a sustainability task force in 2004. In August of that year, the decision to build a mid-Atlantic site was made.
Fast forward two years. Pepsico’s sustainability initiative had evolved to Performance with Purpose, an objective that is securing Wall Street kudos. Business Ethics magazine included Pepsico among the 100 best corporate citizens. Fortune ranked the company 10th on its list of the most-admired companies (2nd among food & beverage firms). On the operations front, production began at the $140 million, 950,000-sq.-ft. facility in Wytheville, VA.
“A business that does better by doing better” is how Indra Nooyi, Pepsico chairman and CEO, defines sustainability. Environmental and social benefits join financial objectives to shape a company that is viewed positively by citizens for the products it makes and as a place to work.
“Whether it’s a production facility or a front office, sustainability addresses the triple bottom line of social benefits, economic benefits and environmental benefits,” explains Rich Schutzenhofer, vice president of engineering, technology development and resource conservation at the Chicago headquarters of Pepsico’s Quaker/Tropicana/Gatorade (Q/T/C) group. At Blue Ridge, straightforward ROI calculations, soft savings and the human payoff from a better work environment shaped design decisions. “It’s common sense to do obvious things like being energy efficient,” Schutzenhofer adds. “That drives economic benefits. And we know consumers want to buy products from environmental leaders, and the best people want to work for environmental leaders.”

Innovative energy savings helped Blue Ridge earn LEED gold certification, the largest food and beverage site to achieve the green-building designation.


 “Everything you invest in sustainability will not have a return,” allows Arnie Wodtke, Gatorade’s director, hot fill supply chain and the engineering and operations point man for the Blue Ridge project. Most of the 134-acre site was returned to a natural state after construction, but there’s no financial return from the wild turkeys roosting behind the building. On the other hand, those kinds of environmental concessions helped Blue Ridge become one of only eight food plants to be certified under the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and the largest to receive gold certification. The commitment to sustainable practices has won points with the local community, and plant managers hope the facility’s design will help turn workers into Gatorade careerists.
LEED certification was an objective from the project’s start. Beyond threshold requirements for indoor air quality, energy performance and erosion and sediment control, project managers considered material selection, waste recycling, water conservation and a plethora of other factors in green design. As more opportunities for innovation presented themselves, the original goal of silver certification was abandoned, and the push was on for gold. “It became a process of challenging the first hurdle and asking, ‘Can we go beyond this?’” says Darryl Wernimont, a director at Haskell, the project’s design/build engineering firm.
“Six years ago, people were testing the waters to see if green building was going to be a fad or a trend,” recalls Wernimont, a member of the Blue Ridge project team and one of 16 LEED-accredited professionals at Haskell. Today, the number of suppliers of low-VOC carpeting and other materials is exploding. Consequently, “The cost of going green is coming down,” he says. “It’s not just good community relations; it’s good employee relations. It also reduces operations costs.”
Accessibility became a design consideration 15 years ago, when the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect. ADA was just a jumping off point at Blue Ridge. By considering the needs of people with impaired vision and other conditions, the safety of all workers was improved. Plant Manager Carolyn Dankowski notes details such as door handles: If a door leads to a more dangerous environment, raised dimples on the door handle provide a tactile cue. If the safety risk is the same or lower, the handle is smooth. Stairways are minimized, and when they are necessary, risers are included not only to guide the visually impaired but also to lessen the severity of anyone’s fall. Severe injury is more likely when a limb is snagged and wrenched on stairs lacking risers, she points out.

A serpentine conveying system snakes through the Blue Ridge plant, adding capital costs but reducing staffing demands.

Tangible returns

Increased productivity is part of sustainability, Gatorade managers argue, and productivity investments already are paying dividends. The goal at Blue Ridge was to double per-employee production rates. The goal was achieved in two of the first year’s reporting periods.
“We’ve considered ourselves hot-fill leaders, but the focus here was to create a competitive edge,” Wodtke says. Benchmarked against hot-fill copackers and other Gatorade facilities, Blue Ridge uses 20% less water, 30% less electricity and 15% less natural gas per unit produced. Each of the four production lines can produce 150% the volume of comparable plants, and staffing is 30% less. “Maximizing our people was the focus in how we laid out the plant,” he explains.
Serpentine conveyor lines bring product to work teams positioned in the middle of the packaging area, rather than a linear layout that would isolate them from each other. Label changeovers are time killers; the revamped design allows workers from multiple lines to execute them. “People flow to the work,” explains Wodtke, cutting changeover time in half.
Operators are called line technicians to reflect expanded responsibilities for inspecting and maintaining equipment. Plexiglas windows on the sides of some machines give technicians a view to chain condition, and lights under conveyor belts aid in inspections. Maintenance engineers are modifying equipment to facilitate condition monitoring. For example, windows are being installed on the sides of conveyor gearboxes to allow technicians to gauge the level and condition of the oil inside. Additional modifications are being generated by the technicians themselves through Total Productive Manufacturing, a “leader-supported, employee-driven” continuous improvement effort, according to Kevin Frevert, engineering and maintenance manager.
Similarly, conveyors carry tray packs to the midpoint in the 650,743-sq.-ft. warehouse area, descending along a 40-ft. tilt-up wall to a palletizing station. The conveyor cost was more than offset by halving the number of lift trucks needed. “There’s very little empty forklift time,” Wodtke points out. “When people are moving, they’ve got product.” That complements sustainability.
In fact, the facility’s overall efficiency is a sustainable advantage, he argues. A plant that can produce 60 million cases a year typically would be 150,000-sq.-ft. larger and employ at least 100 more workers. A smaller building to heat and light, fewer cars coming and going and a more compact parking lot all play to sustainability, he says.
Fast-charge AC batteries power lift trucks, which are equipped with navigational screens. Proponents of fast-charge technology maintain there are enormous economic and environmental advantages over DC and propane power (see “Fast-charged material handling,” Food Engineering, June 2007), though specifics remain vague. AC is more efficient and enjoys higher power delivery compared to DC, believes Bret Aker, CEO of Aker-Wade Power Technology, the Charlottesville, VA, firm that partnered with Enersys batteries to deliver the Express fast-charging system used in Blue Ridge. Aker has yet to document the electrical savings, though overall savings are significant. In any case, Gatorade executives say the elimination of safety issues in switching DC batteries is sufficient justification.
Water is the primary ingredient at Blue Ridge (besides Gatorade, the plant produces Propel fitness water). Reverse osmosis is the technology of choice at most Gatorade plants, but chemical analysis suggested less intense filtration might be appropriate for the municipal water in Wytheville. A negatively charged nanofiltration system from GE Osmonics was installed, providing 90% yield. By comparison, R/O yields 75%. The difference amounts to a 50 million gallon a year reduction in the stream of “grey water,” which is recirculated for use in low-flush toilets and lawn watering. Energy consumption is “absolutely” much lower with nanofiltration, Frevert emphasizes, which helps lower greenhouse gases from the region’s coal-powered electric plants.
Another 50 million-gallon savings was realized through a waterless bottle-rinsing system developed by Gatorade’s in-house engineering team. Air velocity and de-ionization sanitize bottles immediately before filling. Heat-set bottles often are trucked to bottling plants in corrugated boxes, which tend to contaminate them with paper fibers. At Blue Ridge, bottles are blow-molded next door in an Amcor PET facility linked to Gatorade by a 300-ft. long enclosed passageway. Laser-guided vehicles shuttle bottles to the plant. Managers calculate the elimination of 20,000 deliveries of bottles by truck will conserve one million gallons of diesel fuel a year.
Q/T/G engineers also worked with Krones Inc. to develop proprietary valves for volumetric filling on two 600-bottles-per-minute rotary fillers per line. Before Blue Ridge, flood filling was the rule, and a 1,200-bottles-per-minute line could be expected to spill 8,000 gallons of product a day. Lower BOD loads in wastewater and more product in the bottle translate to millions of dollars in annual savings.
Five Gatorade plants have been built in the last 10 years. The company typically seeks best-in-class equipment and relies on systems integrators to tie it together. At Blue Ridge, packaging equipment had to be built and operating in five months. Krones already had been tapped to supply the high-speed fillers, and the relationship was extended to include all systems integration from the fillers to palletizing. “A lot of concurrent design and engineering work was done on an intranet, and Krones became part of a limited number of partners,” says Wodtke, along with Haskell and Engineering Tools Atlanta, Gatorade’s batch-processing engineers.

Fast-charge stations for AC-powered lift trucks eliminate potentially dangerous battery changes with DC and the fumes of propane-powered trucks.

Investing in efficiency

Cheap energy breeds wasteful practices and inefficient facilities. “We started working on energy conservation in the late ‘90s,” according to Wodtke, “and we got a lot of help when we were combined with Tropicana, which had been doing a huge amount of work.” Understanding what tried and true technologies were available helped shape the Blue Ridge capital budget in ways that will pay off for years to come. Motion sensors in the plant’s 18,000 high-efficiency fluorescent lights may take time to generate a return, but the potential productivity gains kick in from day one.
Simple payback calculations are inadequate. “It’s easy to measure the direct savings from an energy-efficient motor,” says Q/T/G’s Schutzenhofer. “People don’t take into consideration what a 1% increase in productivity means across the entire workforce. That’s real; it’s not bells and whistles.”
“We heat and cool many things around here,” Wodtke adds. In years past, energy was used once and dissipated. The cold water that chills bottles after filling might go to a cooling tower; at Blue Ridge, it’s routed through an Enerquip shell-and-tube heat exchanger to help warm municipal water feeding into two 1,200 HP Johnston boilers. Each boiler is capped by an economizer from Cain Industries to capture latent heat in the exhaust to further heat the water. Steam condensate at 180º F is returned to the boiler.
Motors as small as 3 HP are equipped with variable frequency drives; plant-wide, more than 2,000 VFDs are shaving electrical demand. One of the most effective VFDs is mounted on one of three 200 HP Atlas Copco air compressors. The compressor supplies the plant’s needs until it reaches 90% capacity, at which point it shifts the load to one of the other two units. As demand builds, the first unit ramps up again, repeating a hand-off at 90% capacity. “Simple things like that reduce wear on the equipment, minimize investment and still deliver a perfect load,” notes Wodtke.

The plant's 12 tray wrappers are grouped in the center of packaging area to allow work teams to flow to any given machine when needed.


Aerobic digesters for wastewater pretreatment tend to be energy-intensive, says Ned Fiss, manager of the process & design group at Aware Environmental Inc., Charlotte, NC. Aerobic systems also generate considerable amounts of sludge, a bio-waste that is a rising concern. By engineering and fabricating an anaerobic system from Biothane Corp. components, Fiss lowered sludge levels to about a tenth of comparable aerobic-system levels. More than 90% of BOD is removed, and “significant” reductions in electricity use are realized, he says, though specific savings have yet to be calculated. Methane is captured to fire a boiler that provides hot water for the plant.
Ready access to Interstates 77 and 81 and a labor pool that includes machinists from auto-aftermarket shops and skilled workers from textile and furniture manufacturing argued for the Blue Ridge site. Construction on rolling terrain between two mountain ridges complicated the building. Wernimont estimated 1.1 million cubic yards of dirt and rock had to be dynamited and moved to create a level plain for the facility. Elevation changes of up to 80 ft. were effected by earthmovers. Wodtke described the work as “a huge orchestrated dance for nine months,” as the terrain was re-engineered. A single ankle injury was the only reportable accident. Thanks to the massive retention ponds created and a filtration system that removes any oils from rooftops and parking surfaces, runoff water is comparable in quality to pre-construction conditions, and it moves to lower elevations at a slower rate.
Lessons learned at Blue Ridge are being built on at other new Gatorade plants, including a facility set to open in January in Pryor, OK, and a project still in the design stage in Albany, OR. “Every plant you do helps take you to the next level,” reflects Wodtke. “We’re still making breakthroughs.” Many of the changes have been available for years but required a mindset change to implement. A willingness to invest in technologies that make manufacturing more efficient and productive may be the greatest legacy of Blue Ridge and the new focus on sustainability.

For more information:
Bret Aker, Aker-Wade Power Technologies, 434-975-6001,
Ned Fiss, Aware Environmental, 704-916-6173
Darryl Wernimont, Haskell, 904-357-4820, darryl.wernimont@thehaskell
Connie Brenneman, Krones Inc., 414-409-4585

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