New ammonia refrigeration systems come smaller and save more energy. Manufacturers devise resourceful solutions for wastewater and biogas recovery. Building envelopes, thicker wall insulation and white roofs have tipped from optional to standard because of stricter building codes.

Experts from architecture, design and engineering firms have seen sustainability projects in these areas, among others, in recent years. On the other hand, clients mostly stopped asking about attaining a dominant indicator of green design: LEED certification.

Throughout technology updates and the industry’s changing interests, designers say one thing remains the same year after year: Food processors and distributors and pet food manufacturers view sustainable projects as a great idea—if they save money.

Of course, the firms work with plants and distribution centers that complete green projects without strong ROIs because of corporate mandates, marketing benefits or company values. But they’re rare.

“Those are few and far between, and most food and beverage companies still have a bias to: ‘We will make investments in sustainability if they’re either mandated by regulation or there is a reasonable return,’” says Darrin McCormies, director of industrial process engineering for Epstein.

No universal definition exists for a sustainable project, and clients sometimes think of sustainability and efficiency interchangeably or have their own ideas about what sustainability in plant design means, McCormies says.

Most businesses do not enter the design process with specific sustainability targets in mind, he says. Discussions on controlling energy use, cutting waste and reducing pollutants typically happen later when deciding whether features are cost-efficient. However, many projects that aren’t driven by sustainability goals still have sustainable outcomes, he notes.

For clients willing to explore options, Epstein regularly recommends sustainable solutions with decent return, even if they go beyond the original scope of work or fall outside of mainstream design practices. Examples include:

  • Modeling whether 2 inches of insulation beyond code requirements will decrease energy costs
  • Suggesting a more efficient, cost-neutral alternative to a steam boiler for heating water
  • Using condenser blowdown water to clean barns at a meat processing facility

Food manufacturers and distributors face the extra challenge of trying to wring efficiencies out of processes that are inherently contrary to saving energy. The cleaning chemicals, the time, the power and the water are all essential to keeping food safe, and energy and water usage can’t drop below the levels needed to keep pathogens away, experts say. 

“Safety and sustainability are two opposites, and food safety wins every time, as it should,” says Tim Gibbons, vice president of design and business development for ESI Group USA.

But companies “burn the candle from both ends” to do everything possible for safety and efficiency, he says. “Where it’s practical, you try to save energy, and where it isn’t practical, then you need to make sure that you do the right thing for the food and food safety and for the populace.”

Tammi McAllister, food and beverage core team leader at CRB, says the firm generally sees two flavors of clients: companies that mandate certain sustainability goals and those that decide at each step of a project whether green initiatives fit within their allotted capital funding, even when sustainability is part of their core values. “The most efficient equipment may not make sense,” she says. “If you’re talking about 20-year ROI, it’s tough to get a client to justify it.”

The green design checklist

Building designers and engineers outline widespread projects with sustainability benefits, ones gaining popularity, and innovative approaches used in certain circumstances.

Common for their strong ROI:

  • Heat/steam recovery
  • Natural lighting (sometimes driven by human benefits, more than sustainability) 
  • LED fixtures
  • Recycling/selling waste
  • Efficient electrical systems, motors, HVAC
  • Building envelopes, white roofs, high R-value insulation
  • Building materials from a 500-mile radius
  • Tractor-trailer docks that don’t break the cold chain during loading/unloading
  • Variable frequency drives, screw compressors for refrigeration
  • More efficient boiler systems

Leading edge:

  • Sophisticated building management systems to inform decisions
  • Compact refrigeration that requires less ammonia or ammonia/CO2
  • Mineral recovery from wastewater for fertilizer
  • Efficient, direct-fired water heaters instead of steam systems
  • Urethane concrete flooring

Used less commonly or for specific situations:

  • Wastewater or rainwater recovery
  • Wastewater retention lagoons/biogas recovery
  • Burning waste to generate low-grade energy
  • Self-generating power/cogeneration
  • Solar panels (only cost effective with outside funding)
  • Wind turbines
  • Recyclable construction materials (more common with LEED)

LEED’s use narrows

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was a big push for years, but about three to five years ago, most CRB clients shifted to an attitude of “doing the right thing” independently, McAllister says. 

When CRB has evaluated whether to pursue LEED, many clients, including large producers, abandon the rating system “because it was basically just buying the plaque,” McAllister says.

In an article about 10 years ago for Food Engineering’s annual Plant Construction Survey, McCormies said most Epstein clients asked about LEED or expected it with new projects.

Now “I can’t remember the last time anybody has asked me about LEED,” he says. “It’s to the point that I don’t even bring it up anymore.” 

With stricter building codes, today’s efficient food facilities could qualify for LEED certification without having to do much more, McCormies says. Companies started to question the cost of the certification fee and consulting fees for goals that the government doesn’t require, he says.

Food companies that still pursue LEED appreciate its focus on providing healthier, pleasant workplaces for employees, on top of its green design parameters, says Gibbons of ESI Group.

A distribution client of his achieves LEED certification on all new buildings and uses the worker-friendly features as part of a comprehensive approach to recruit employees and keep them by treating them well.

But unless companies can capitalize on LEED certification to improve employee satisfaction or marketing, it typically does not make financial sense, Gibbons says. 

Reduced footprint: The new focus?

Even without LEED certification, designing sustainable buildings and processes is standard for all projects. In fact, CRB Senior Project Manager Jeff Matis, PE, says designers and engineers “don’t even get to the table” unless they’re prepared to support sustainability.

These days, standard sustainability projects—including energy/heat/waste recovery and daylighting to reduce energy costs—sometimes are part of new mandates to reduce companies’ footprints, Matis says. “When we talk about zero footprint or zero carbon footprint, it’s all about using the minimum required and generating less waste, less byproduct,” he says.

At the same time, other firms say they aren’t hearing much about footprint goals, and it remains unclear how much impact those commitments will have on the design/build process.

Renovation vs. greenfield

Building a facility from the ground up almost always will result in a more efficient operation than a retrofit, designers say. A plant built 15 to 20 years ago will not be organized in a way to take advantage of technology advances, Matis says. Renovation can be “like putting a Band-Aid on an issue.”

With a greenfield build, the project team can pick off  energy drains and waste and emission generators. However, greenfield projects are generally more expensive than renovations or additions, and experts say a new build is not a viable option if companies can’t overcome a common hurdle of finding a piece of land that meets numerous requirements: with proper terrain, without major wetlands, with affordable utilities and close to highways.

Gibbons of ESI Group says clients often are surprised by high projected operating expenses for decent-priced greenfield land that is a bit farther from exit ramps, which can cause trucking costs to skyrocket. “When you start adding all those things up, as well as the time that’s required to get that vehicle off the main artery, the cost of the piece of property is nothing compared to the long-term operation.”

So staying put can be the best decision.

For example, instead of sourcing expensive new land near Boston for a food distribution client, ESI Group virtually gutted a standalone metal building on the company’s existing property and provided a top-notch, sustainable 600,000-sq.-ft. facility, Gibbons says.

“It really depends on the location and the scale of the renovation that you’re doing as to whether or not you take it to a level that’s more sustainable,” he says.

While renovation limits some options, McCormies of Epstein says a retrofit still can deliver a better, more efficient plant, but paying to remove and replace materials or equipment might increase costs.

For brownfield projects, zoning for reclaimed sites in urban areas will affect design more than in exurban or rural communities. For example, at the Testa Produce distribution center built on former stockyards in Chicago, the city limited a wind turbine’s size. An area farther from the city likely would have allowed the bigger one, he says.

More natural refrigeration

Big advances have been made in ammonia refrigeration, no longer reserved for the largest cold facilities. Vendors understand that companies want refrigerant options that are less damaging to the environment, and they offer more compact equipment and low-charge systems that are becoming more affordable.

With good design practices, suppliers have improved the units’ safety and efficiency, says Matis of CRB. “The home analogy is, you used to have to buy an entire large refrigeration plant to make ammonia effective. Today you could buy it in a window box air conditioner type.”

Gibbons of ESI Group says the new systems bring the compressors closer to the refrigerated space, decreasing refrigerant because piping to a central machine room is eliminated. “You can use about 1/10 of the refrigerant,” he says. Less refrigerant would lessen the impact if a valve failed, for example, and ammonia is released into the air.

In turn, ESI Group is increasingly taking advantage of these cooling systems to provide air conditioning to offices, one of the most energy-consuming parts of a building, Gibbons says.

Rather than using a manmade refrigerant system, the solution “steals just a little bit” of the chill from the ammonia system, transferring to a glycol loop to cool offices, he explains. The solution is about 30 percent more efficient.

Rethinking processes, improving materials

Mark Redmond, PE, president of Food Plant Engineering, notes that while plants need a certain amount of cleaning water, the trick to reducing water use is to make the plant easier to clean. “Ultimately, it comes down to design,” he says. “A plant that’s designed properly is easy to clean and you’re going to be more efficient about water use. There’s no silver bullet here.”

For water conservation, the firm sees many plants dialing back washdown pressure because they can clean, effectively at a slightly lower level, using about 300 psi instead of up to 900 psi, Redmond says.

Among material improvements, flooring is leaning dramatically toward more sustainable options, he says. Vinyl esters that contained VOCs have fallen out of favor, and companies use more urethane concrete products now.

Many producers are looking at replacing their boilers, especially with retrofit facilities, he says. Older boilers are not very efficient, and new models have better burner technology and controls.

Some facilities opt for water tube boilers rather than fire tube versions, he notes. To maintain efficiency with water tube boilers, the water quality has to be closely monitored. For operations requiring varied amounts of steam, this type of boiler can often react faster to demand increases than fire tube boilers, which can make them more efficient.

What’s the next LED lighting? 

The list of ways that companies can improve sustainability is infinite—even at facilities that have invested in green projects for years and are way past the low-hanging fruit in efficiencies, such as LED lighting or energy audits.

“It’s just a matter of: Do you spend the money to get the smaller piece of the pie that’s going to make you more efficient?” says McAllister of CRB. “It really just has to be a business decision, both from an ROI standpoint and from a business core value standpoint.”

Engineers always can evaluate another process step for energy savings, McCormies of Epstein says. They ask questions like:

  • What if you lower the processing temperature 20 degrees?
  • Can you reduce HVAC ventilation?
  • How do you minimize the portion of the plant that needs washed down to save water?

Improvements always are possible as technology evolves and equipment becomes more efficient. 

Take LED lighting as an example.

LED fixtures for washdown in food and beverage plants were not available even 10 years ago. Over the years, operations limited their use to, say, just refrigerated areas because they used to be expensive. “Now it’s not even a discussion. I mean, nobody talks about what type of light fixture. It’s LED,” McCormies says.

Another broad change like LEDs will come. People wouldn’t have guessed 20 years ago that LED lights would cause an industry shift, he says.

“What’s the next threshold change in a technology that’s universal across the whole food and beverage platform? I wish I was that smart because I would be an investor in that.”

Whatever the change is, McCormies expects that energy cost increases or regulation will propel it. Right now, services for wastewater, water and even electricity are affordable, so interest in reducing usage is lower, he says.

“It’s going to be the cost side of energy and waste streams that will drive innovation and change and investment by clients,” he says. “The industry responds to financial pressure and regulatory pressure.”

For more information:

ESI Group USA,
Food Plant Engineering,