Management Briefing

Sustainability in Spirits - Part III: Waste

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The production of distilled spirits, like any industrial manufacturing process, inevitably creates waste, whether that is organic material such as the 'pot ale' which is left in a pot-still in malt whisky production or solid waste such as the cardboard and plastic used to protect glass bottles prior to being filled.


The challenge is therefore not so much to 'eliminate' waste but to ensure that as much waste  as possible is reused or recycled.

Reusing the by-products of distilling

Because of its carbon emissions benefits, anaerobic digestion clearly carries sustainability advantages as a means of reusing organic waste material. However, there are other longstanding means of ensuring that the by-products of the distillation process are not wasted, which pre-date concerns over global warming.

For many years, such material has been sold into the cattle feed and fertiliser markets. For example, the Combination of Rothes Distillers (CoRDe), which as mentioned in the previous section is now partnering with biomass specialist Helius Energy in the development of a waste-to-energy plant, was originally founded in 1904 to process pot ale from distilleries in the Rothes area, and is known locally as 'The Combi'. 

Brown-Forman's links with the local cattle feed markets around its Jack Daniel's distillery were mentioned in the previous section of this briefing. Bacardi's site in Switzerland converts spent botanicals into pellets which are used by local farmers as fertiliser.

Pernod Ricard states that more than 99% of its organic waste is recovered and reused in a variety of ways including the manufacture of animal feed and agricultural compost, the production of biogas or for other industrial purposes.

The majority of the company’s grain distilleries, notably in Scotland, Ireland, Canada and India, transform the spent grain obtained from distilling into a dehydrated feed for livestock. However, in Sweden, the stillage from its Absolut site supplies pig farms in the Ahus region. In Scotland, Pernod's Glenlivet distillery has been equipped with an evaporator which can concentrate the pot ale left in the still after distillation into a syrup which is rich in nutrients and can be used for animal feed.

As previously mentioned, Pernod's sites in Walkerville, Canada, Behror, India, and Thuir in France transform their liquid effluents into biogas. However, agricultural uses still account for the vast majority of the treatment of the company's organic waste. In 2010/2011, agricultural uses accounted for 88% of organic waste recovery, with feedstock representing 82% of the total. Biogas accounted for 9% while other industrial uses account for the remaining 3%.

Diageo is unique among the major distillers in having a publicly stated target on the reduction of the polluting power of water leaving its sites. The company has committed to reduce the polluting power of its wastewater, which is measured in biochemical oxygen demand or 'BOD', by 60% by 2015 against a 2007 baseline. However, while it has achieved 9% reduction over the past year, overall there has so far only been an 11.2% increase in the BOD polluting power of wastewater since 2007.

Underlining the interconnectedness of environmental objectives, the full commissioning of the bio-energy plant at Diageo's Cameronbridge distillery will have a dramatic impact on the group's BOD progress, as well as its carbon emissions. The scale of the facility means that it alone was responsible for 60% of the company's BOD emissions in 2012. As the new bio-energy plant at Cameronbridge comes into full operation during 2013, Diageo says it hopes to achieve "significant BOD reductions and be on track to meet our 2015 target".

Other companies may be set to follow Diageo's lead on creating targets in this area. According to Bacardi global technical director Stuart Lowthian, a target around wastewater will feature in the company's next set of environmental goals to be announced early next year.

Eliminating waste to landfill

The lead metric with regard to solid waste is the percentage of its waste product that a company sends to landfill, and it is no surprise to find elimination of such waste is a key target for many companies, including spirits producers.

Diageo has committed to eliminate waste to landfill from its operations entirely by 2015. However, it describes this as "a challenging target". In fact, for 2011 the company had reported a 91.4% increase in waste to landfill owing to some problems in its African brewing operations. However, in its recently-published Sustainability & Responsibility Report 2012 , the company records a 20.5% reduction for the 2011-2012 period which took the cumulative reduction since 2007 to 56.8%. Michael Alexander, Diageo's head of environment communications & policy, describes the company's performance over the past year as a "fantastic turnaround".

In its sustainability report, Diageo also states that 16 of its production sites in Scotland had sent no waste to landfill over the past year, taking the total number of facilities sending no waste to landfill to 24 across the company.

Four years ago, Pernod Ricard set itself the objective of recycling 85% of the solid waste generated at its production sites by 2011/2012, compared with the 78% figure in 2008/2009. In fact, Patrice Robichon, Pernod Ricard's corporate scientific advisor & representative for sustainable development, reports that the company has now increased this figure to 92%. Robichon expects the company to publish a new target on waste as part of a set of renewed commitments across a number of environmental criteria by the end of the year.

Brown-Forman has committed to eliminate all waste to landfill within its operations by 2020. The company states that only 1% of the waste from its Jack Daniel's distillery now goes to landfill. Director of environmental performance & governmental compliance Tim Nall says the company's Louisville operation is also "close" to that level, but there is more work to be done at its corporate headquarters and in some of its operations outside the US. 

Brown-Forman's target on waste to landfill is one of four 2020 targets, the other three relating to energy use, GHG emissions and water consumption, unveiled as part of its recently launched Environmental Sustainability Roadmap for 2020. Tim Nall describes the launch of the Roadmap as a "significant event" for the company. "With the Roadmap we've said these are our reduction targets; here is a way to measure our success," he tells just-drinks.

Challenges around solid waste extend beyond the bounds of the distillery. Not least, waste is one of the issues influencing spirits companies' approach to packaging which is covered in the final section of this briefing.

For part four of this briefing, click here. Part two can be found here.

For the full table of contents, click here.

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