In a recent panel discussion hosted by Aquacycl, guests representing four major beverage companies focused on fresh water and wastewater issues around the globe and discussed environmental, social and governance (ESG) tactics to maintain the availability and quality of their most important ingredient—water. Panel members included Michael Alexander, global head of water, environment, agriculture sustainability at Diageo; Andy Battjes, director EH&S (environmental health & safety), Brown-Forman; Rajendra Gursahaney (“Guru”), VP engineering – North America at PepsiCo; Dr. Eric Willman, senior director R&D, water processing technology, PepsiCo; and Paul Bowen (ret.), former water and sustainability executive Coca-Cola and a past president of the Water Environment Federation.

The panel’s topic, “Meeting Water-Related ESG Goals in the Beverage Industry: How to achieve 2030 Success,” was moderated by Orianna Bretschger, CEO and founder of Aquacycl. The story of Aquacycl was covered in FE’s Engineering R&D in the March issue, and was entitled, “A novel way to clean wastewater streams.” Fortunately, this panel has been preserved on YouTube, and you can find the site info at the end of this article.

Water challenges

Diageo’s Alexander said that his company has several water strategy programs, but if he were to pick out a pain point, it would be that no one company—regardless of its number of stewardship programs—can do it all alone. What is needed is a prioritization in working with others on finding solutions to water conservation—and doing it better. He attributed groups like the Water Resilience Coalition, the WWF and The Nature Conservancy that are bringing people together to work toward common goals in water conservation.

Another challenge: Alexander said it’s very difficult to understand how we can make our smallholder farmers—and especially some of them in the South—more climate resilient in terms of water. For those operating in the South, adaptation is of the highest priority, but that’s not easily solved in a quick conversation.

PepsiCo’s Willman reported that because his company has both beverage and snack manufacturing, the goal is to be net water positive by 2030, and a big part of that is shrinking the footprint of PepsiCo’s direct operations. In areas of high-risk watersheds, PepsiCo has shrunk water use down to best-in-class standards in several facilities, but he said the company is trying to cut 11 billion liters of water from company owned facilities. “It’s a daunting challenge, and as a water technologist, it’s both an opportunity and a challenge,” said Willman. “It’s an opportunity in the sense that it’s exciting to figure out the most efficient ways to shrink your water footprint in the food and beverage industry.”

“Local context is everything when we’re talking about water, and so helping understand what are the conditions of those watersheds where we have our facilities is super critical—and unfortunately, that is a fairly significant pain point in certain areas,” said Brown-Forman’s Battjes. “The data is either not available or not of high enough quality—or not at the specificity that is needed to really pinpoint what are the actual challenges on the ground that maybe we need to be working with others on.”

“As a company, if you’ve got multiple locations, you’re trying to navigate multiple different watershed basins where the context is different, so the requirements are different,” adds Battjes. “The local regulatory schemes are different, data quality and clarity is different. That all comes together to become a pretty significant challenge—and it is only going to be [addressed] by working across industries, and across different groups within watersheds. So it’s with the community, with local governments, with NGO’s that we’re going to be able to achieve those successes that we’re all trying to make. We all understand that water is a human right, and it’s something that every person needs, and we have to make sure that when we’re operating in those areas that we’re respecting that and [that] we do our part in making sure that that watershed is sustainable?”

Working together

Working together, said Paul Bowen, former water and sustainability executive at Coca-Cola (now retried) is the key to solving water problems, and he considers it a tribute to all the companies that they’ve shared discussions in the past and continue to work together.

“This is not just Diageo doing their thing and Brown Forman doing their thing and Pepsi and Coke doing their separate things,” says Bowen.”We have collaborated for 15 years in this space, trying to work together, and I think that shows in the fact that we’re all talking about some of the same things and we’re all using some of the same terms and same words.”

Water reuse: what works and what doesn’t

 Reuse is always a daunting challenge, said Bowen. “I think Andy kind of touched on it a bit with policy and how do get around some of the local policies and local cultural issues surrounding reuse? So for my experience with Coke and dealing with reuse…The easiest reuse was what we could do inside the building.”

Coca-Cola found it could drop water use by 20-25% by taking a lower quality of water and reusing internally. This could be accomplished by using simple piping changes, filters or some minimal treatment. Those were the easiest uses it implemented. Rather than sending used water down the drain, other in-plant uses could be implemented, The more difficult challenges came when it involved water that made it to the end of the pipe. Suitable reuses included anything external to the plant, for example, truck washes, irrigation, crate washes or cooling towers. “Once you brought it back inside the building, that’s where the cultural issues, the policy issues, the legal issues developed, said Bowen.

Once you’ve picked the low-hanging fruit in terms of water reuse, new challenges develop—for example, cleaning up the dirty water and using it for process water. But as PepsiCo’s Rajendra Gursahaney (Guru) explained, there is the “yuck factor.” But there’s no reason that dirty water can’t be run through filters and reverse osmosis and be cleaned sufficiently so it can be put back into the process.

Another point that Guru made was that since many industries are co-located because of natural gas and utilities, it makes sense to look at water reuse in the sense that one plant’s waste output might be OK for another industry’s input—maybe with minimal cleaning. One issue that may need to be worked out, however, is whether the POTW expects the water back to treat it at a cost. If the POTW loses its input from a food company because the wastewater was sent to a neighboring industry for another use, deals may need to be worked out so every player wins in such a situation.

More information

Panel members also discussed local water issues, plant contests to improve water usage, benchmarking and metrics and KPIs, best practices and more. To watch this panel discussion, use this link: