Sustainability should be a full-spectrum approach from the start

Feb. 1, 2023
From water to waste, energy to emissions, looking at the broader system is better for sustainability — which starts before a design is even put to paper.

Sustainability has moved from a corporate trend to a business necessity — not only for the benefit of the planet, but increasingly for the bottom line. Yet, while a growing number of manufacturing companies have sustainability goals, many are missing the mark by focusing only on carbon footprints and energy usage.

Running a sustainable processing plant requires a commitment to more than just reducing energy consumption. Of course, energy is a critical part of the equation. Still, a broad array of factors must be considered in the design and operation of a plant to fully optimize its sustainability, including the plant’s layout and how the product is delivered.

Sustainability should be considered in every decision made about the plant and product. The goal should be that raw materials are completely utilized, utilities optimized, chemicals and waste minimized, and efficiency prioritized in every process or operation.

From water to waste, and energy to emissions, looking at the broader system is better for sustainability — which starts before a design is even put to paper.

Designing the product

As a dairy processing expert, I have seen an evolution in products. Whether it is milk-based products moving to “free-from” ingredients or dairy-first plants transitioning to plant-based options, the end products have changed. And with it, so have the processes.

The use of new technologies — like membranes, cavitation, microparticulation, microgap homogenization valves, 100%-yield cheese processes and more — can help the manufacturers to attain sustainability goals with innovative technologies.

Regardless, an essential aspect to sustainability is using every ounce of material. A plant designed to maximize the use of raw materials is one that will make great strides toward sustainability.

For example, cleaning is a fundamental part of all dairy processing. As the product is flushed from a line, care must be taken not to lose solids. Solids can be recovered by collecting and treating flushing water using reverse osmosis. The remaining water can also be reused for processing, rather than discarding it.

A plant that runs with maximum uptime and the shortest possible cleaning cycles is the most efficient — and therefore the most sustainable. This requires skillful process engineering to ensure cleaning is adequate but not wasteful. In addition, whenever a cleaning cycle occurs, it needs to efficiently remove all remaining product, soil and bacteria from the line. Clean-in-place (CIP) systems that have recently emerged in the market are one way to achieve this goal.

Having an efficient product recovery system ensures all products are accounted for. Additionally, plants are moving beyond traditional dairy products, and equipment must evolve along with them. For ambient desserts and yogurt products, a new aseptic rapid recovery pigging system has been a game-changer. These systems can make a big difference by using approximately 60 to 70 percent less water than previous systems.

As products innovate, so must the systems. With it, we are better able to save on waste, energy and water, and much more.

Fostering innovation

Successful innovation always requires thorough testing. Yet, many companies do not have the resources or facilities for extensive product testing.

Some companies are limited to what they can do in the lab, which is no substitute for what happens at plant-floor scale. Others may run tests on their production facilities, which renders the equipment unavailable for paid production and may waste materials.

The best manufacturing partners offer options. Whether it is a full-scale innovation lab — outside of your actual production space — or a smaller-scale tool that you can use in your own plant to run batch pilot tests, having a wide range of innovation locations and offerings not only allows companies to partner better together, but it reduces travel times and other costs associated with remote production.

Building a sustainable system

A system can only work as well as its individual components. If a system uses the right equipment and tools to work as efficiently as possible, sustainability can be an inherent byproduct of an optimized plant.

For example, the Homogenizer Water Recycling System (HWRS), is designed to recycle up to 97% of the water used by homogenizers. Traditionally, a continual flow of water is supplied to homogenizers to cool the transmission oil and lubricate the plungers. The HWRS technology recaptures that water, sanitizes and chills it, then returns it to the homogenizer.

Even better, some of the pieces can be used with existing equipment, minimizing the need to replace whole systems and creating more waste.

Another example are scraped surface heat exchangers, like SPX FLOW’s Nexus, which are critical for forming the correct crystal structure in products like margarine, shortenings and other fats and oils products. Data shows that by using highly efficient CO2 as refrigerant, heat transfer improved by 30 percent for some margarine and shortening producers.

No matter the product or end-user, equipment makes the difference. Ensuring those components are built with sustainability in mind is key.

Maintaining the system

Maintenance has an enormous impact on processing systems. A poorly maintained system is also an inefficient one — often plagued by breakdowns and threats to worker safety.

Setting up and maintaining the automation system is also critical to plant performance. If instrumentation is calibrated and the plant accurately controlled, errors will be reduced and there will be a high level of confidence in the measurements being taken. This means that setpoints can be adjusted to tighter limits, thereby optimizing levels of heating, cooling and energy usage throughout the plant.

Other factors when designing and maintaining a sustainable dairy plant include the use of high-efficiency motors, pumps, valves, etc. Hygienic zoning should also be carefully considered as this can significantly impact plant efficiency. Any contamination due to equipment failure will lead to a batch being scrapped, and the control of food safety measures is critical.

From the latest maintenance monitoring equipment — such as IO-Link technology, which allows real-time monitoring and improved uptime — to expert technicians who can help to address issues as soon as possible, having the right equipment and partners is imperative.

Finding the right partner

Sustainability is a moving target. What works today needs to be constantly evaluated, innovated and updated. That onus is not only on the processing plants and manufacturers but also on the businesses that support those sectors.

The partnership between all parties is imperative. Expertise and experience make a difference.

Whether upgrading a current plant or starting from scratch, there are always ways businesses can improve. Finding a partner that fits your needs — from design to implementation — and can see incremental efficiency improvements while keeping an eye on your entire sustainability footprint will make a world of difference.

Pranav Shah is global market director for fresh and fermented dairy and plant-based products at SPX Flow. He strives to achieve superior value-propositions for customers and decrease the overall life-cycle costs of the processing lines.