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Business Report

Nestlé Goes on a Water Diet

Rethinking longtime practices, a food giant dramatically cuts its water use.

The global food conglomerate Nestlé is on a campaign much like Ford’s to analyze water use at all its facilities around the world. Between 2002 and 2015 it more than doubled the amount of food it can produce with a cubic meter of water.

One plant—a Carnation factory in Modesto, California, in the heart of the state’s drought country—makes every can of Carnation evaporated milk sold in the United States. Since it opened in 1993, it has been taking in raw milk, evaporating off about half its volume as water, and throwing that “milk water” down the drain. Meanwhile, it has been taking in fresh potable water from the Modesto water utility to run the factory—to make steam to evaporate the milk, to clean food-processing equipment, to run HVAC systems and basic utilities.

The plant buys 1.7 million gallons of fresh water a week, and throws away 500,000 gallons of “milk water” in the same period.

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Now that’s changing. This year, Carnation is installing reverse-osmosis equipment that will allow the plant to reuse the water it evaporates from the milk. That will help reduce by 70 percent the amount of water the plant needs to buy from Modesto.

Once Nestlé gets a second level of regulatory approval, it will start to clean and recycle all the plant’s water. Then the only new water the plant will need will come in with the milk it uses as raw material, resulting in what Nestlé calls a “zero-water” factory.

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