As the world looks for ways to meet a growing demand for water, food and beverage manufacturers are embracing sustainability in their processes to conserve or reuse water and lower overall consumption. To get a better perspective on what water sustainability means for the industry, Food Engineering spoke with Paul Schuler, region executive, the Americas – Engineered Systems at GE Water & Process Technologies.

FE: What does sustainability mean for the food and beverage industry as it relates to water?

Paul Schuler: For food and beverage companies, water is literally essential to their products—from something where water is inherent in the production process, like a bag of potato chips, to a bottle of beer, where water is a key ingredient. For these companies, sustainability requires protecting their existing water supply as well as ensuring water is available in the future; otherwise, they could find themselves without a product to sell.

FE: What are some areas of opportunity related to water and sustainability for this industry?

Schuler: Food and beverage companies need to ensure sustainability in two key areas critical to their business: the environment and the supply chain. By and large, these companies have realized water is a finite resource, and a number of corporate initiatives have been put into place to start making real changes in conserving and recycling water in local environments as well as globally. A sustainable water source is critical to the survival of each and every manufacturer in the food and beverage industry, so it’s good to see progress being made in this area at the corporate level.

As production moves from corporate down to individual production plants, independent bottlers and ingredient suppliers, the process of implementing sustainable practices can become harder to control. Consequently, transparency within the supply chain is a must.

FE: What companies are making strides in this space?

Schuler: Interestingly, we’ve seen a real spirit of community and “co-opetition” among craft brewers when it comes to sustainable practices and water. These smaller companies are essentially partnering with their competitors to not only make great beer, but to do it in a better way. They have set up various craft brewers’ associations and sustainability committees to share best practices on recycling their waste streams, using new technologies and just learning and growing together. They’re all working together to make each other better.

FE: Is there a particular country or region that is more heavily focused on sustainability efforts?

Schuler: We’ve seen so-called “first world” standards in water sustainability applied not by region or geography, but by brand. For example, a major soft drink producer may set a global standard on recycling and reusing water and then work very closely with local bottlers, sharing knowledge on best practices or technologies that can help improve ingredient water quality or plant efficiency.

FE: How can partnering with a company like GE help a manufacturer improve its sustainability efforts?

Schuler: Partnering with a global company like GE can be an advantage because we work across the entire food and beverage industry, and we have a good understanding of what’s going on throughout the industry. This allows us to spot trends and uncover new opportunities to save water, decrease energy use and increase overall plant efficiency. We also have proven technologies we can implement to address these areas and offer the best value to our customers.

Another advantage of working with an established organization such as GE is that we look at the entire lifecycle of a food and beverage plant to solve problems immediately, as well as ensure the long-term health of the plant. For a food and beverage company, this can mean making a decision between paying for a “quick fix” or spending perhaps a little more upfront to get greater value over the long term.