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Opinion: A thirst for change – Sustainability innovations in the beverage industry
Rafaela Sousa

Rafaela Sousa

20 June 2024

Opinion: A thirst for change – Sustainability innovations in the beverage industry

Colin Rodgers

As the global beverage industry tackles the challenge of reducing its environmental footprint, it's clear that innovation and technology will play a crucial role in driving progress. Colin Rodgers, director of V-Tex, explores how cutting-edge technology is helping drinks manufacturers reduce their impact on the planet, examining the strategies and technologies shaping the industry's future and what it will take for brands to not just meet but exceed their sustainability goals.


Right now, the global beverage industry is falling short of its goals to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 2050. In fact, a recent Kearney report estimated that it needs to improve its current reduction rate 11-fold.

 

Despite efforts like Absolut's sustainable wood fibre bottle and Nestlé's commitment to lower-carbon shipping, the question remains: what more should the industry be doing? 

 

In the context of tightening EU regulations and evolving consumer awareness, we should embrace more robust and transparent actions and harness the latest emerging technologies to fast-track our sustainable practices. 


Decisive steps towards sustainability  


Inside the companies themselves, designing ESG strategies with clear emission goals is vital. This might mean budgeting for new technology investments, updating operational processes or using data mining to track emission reductions.  

 

Leading players in the beverage world are raising their green game. For example, Pepsi’s new sustainability platform, ‘Partners for Tomorrow,’ unifies its environmental efforts, including its CIRQU recycling programme. We are also seeing companies publicly share emissions targets, including Coca-Cola’s 2030 science-based target to reduce absolution emissions by 25% compared with 2015.  

 

Meanwhile, smart factories are deploying high-tech sensors to track machine elements like performance and temperature to ensure the kit on the factory floor is working at optimal efficiencies. Artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things are playing growing roles here, helping to act on performance data autonomously.  

 

In distribution, the global electrification drive is another green catalyst, offering more sustainable delivery vehicles, smarter routing software and AI-driven supply chain management.  

 

Green energy surge


Switching to renewable energy sources like solar or wind power, instead of relying on fossil fuels like coal or oil, is one of the most effective ways for drinks companies to reduce their emissions.  

 

Renewable energy can also save money in the long run, and sends out a positive message to consumers that the brand cares about the environment. A great example is Innocent Drinks’ carbon-neutral smoother factory in Rotterdam – the Blender – which is helping the company progress towards being a carbon-neutral business in 2025.



Refrigeration of the future


Refrigeration is another major contributor to carbon emissions, and cutting energy usage here can offer a better bottom line and reduced emissions. Simply upgrading or replacing outdated in-store coolers with more efficient versions can help. 


Smart refrigeration systems have gained traction in the industry, offering enhanced energy management and reduced environmental impact. These systems leverage sensors, data analytics and automation to optimise cooling processes. For instance, intelligent controllers can adjust temperature settings based on real-time demand, ensuring that refrigeration units operate only when necessary. 

 

Another notable advancement is rapid chilling technology, which brings both customer service and environmental benefits. Rapid coolers using the ‘forced convection’ system chill beverages in a fraction of the time required by conventional methods, for example.  


These nifty devices reduce electricity use and carbon footprint of bars and retail outlets by substituting 24-hour refrigeration for on-demand chilling, offering energy savings of 50% to 90% compared to traditional refrigeration methods.  

 

Progress through circular models


Plastic packaging is the EU’s main source of plastic waste, with food and beverages making up two-fifths of it. The shift from traditional materials to greener alternatives like biodegradable and recycled packaging is accelerating.


While sustainability has a reputation for being more expensive, brands can actually cut costs by using recycled ingredients. Used drink cans in Europe are 20% cheaper than new aluminium. Forward-thinking brands will go one step further and shout about these innovations to customers to encourage them to drink more sustainably, creating a positive feedback mechanism that drives a lower-carbon, more circular economy.  

 

I would argue that, for this kind of circularity to truly take off, collective investment in eco-friendly initiatives is the answer. The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) serves as a notable illustration of industry-wide cooperation and resource pooling. BIER members collaborate to ensure compliance and promote climate action through common guidance, reporting and best practice sharing within the beverage sector. Sharing expertise is pivotal, particularly for smaller suppliers seeking guidance in adopting environmentally sustainable practices.



Aiming for top-shelf sustainability


The drinks industry is embracing change, but the real test lies in delivering on green promises while balancing quality, cost and speed.  

 

Smarter production, eco-friendly packaging and circular supply chain strategies are among many of the tools available. However, to make the most of these, brands need clear environmental goals that will hold them and their partners accountable for any shortcomings.  

 

The future of our world depends on the drinks industry ensuring that business success and environmental responsibility are not just aligned but inseparable.  

 

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