PepsiCo Using Potatoes to Run UK Chip Factories

potatoes in pile photo

Photo by net_efekt via Flickr CC

What are potato chips? They're slices of potatoes with the majority of the water taken out (and in most cases, a lot of oil added in). What happens to all the water - around 80% of a potato? Well, for four potato chip factories in the UK where water is an increasingly significant issue, the water will go straight toward processing the themselves. PepsiCo is planning to take the factories off the water grid entirely, and use the water from the roughly 350,000 tons of potatoes processed each year into products like Walker's Crisps. The UK is taking a serious look at water use as droughts take their toll. Companies are looking at ways they can radically reduce water consumption with the goal of being better equipped to deal with shortages and government regulation in the future - both of which are not questions of "if" but of "when."

The Guardian reports that PepsiCo's is getting a creative head start in its chip factories by recycling the water found in its raw materials into resources for manufacturing the raw materials into consumable products.

Walter Todd, PepsiCo's vice president of sustainability for Europe, states that the company's four UK chip factories, which employ 3,500 people, will (eventually) shut off the water mains and turn on the potatoes.

The transition seems radical, but really it's simply proactive. As Todd tells the Guardian, "the issue is not yet being taken seriously in the UK because there is such a deeply embedded view that this is a "rainy country. Well actually it is becoming less rainy over time. People are likely only to start paying attention when the increasing unpredictability of the weather pushes up the price of food...Todd says that unless companies start treating water with the same importance as carbon, and take action to reduce usage, then factories in water stressed areas may be forced to restrict their operating hours and in extreme circumstances be shut down."

PepsiCo is looking at this as an opportunity to experiment with what transitions are possible for factories in other, more water-strained areas of the world. Not only will it curb water consumption, but it will also curb costs as the price of water shoots up alongside scarcity. The company already has plans from farm to factory; it is testing out the i-Crop, which sits in potato fields to monitor the moisture in soil and minimize irrigation, and in the factories are plans for capturing the water that boils off during the cooking process of chips. Eventually the company wants all the factories to be entirely off the water grid.

"Water is still an emerging issue," says Todd. "Three to five years ago it was not much talked about but that is changing rapidly. The unpredictability makes us nervous as a business. We are looking at it with a new lens around where we get all our key ingredients such as sunflower oil for our crisps, orange juice for our Tropicana brand and oats for Quaker Oats. There has been a risk assessment at a high level and we are now going through contingency planning."

While the goals seem audacious, PepsiCo UK and Ireland have already made impressive progress toward reducing water consumption, achieving a 45% reduction in water use between 2000-2008 and a further 14.6% reduction last year according to the Guardian.

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