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Freshly filled bottles travel down a conveyor belt on their way to packaging at Labatt London Brewery. (GEOFF ROBINS/Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail)
Freshly filled bottles travel down a conveyor belt on their way to packaging at Labatt London Brewery. (GEOFF ROBINS/Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail)

Green employers

Beer makers brew a smarter water policy Add to ...

In water-rich Canada, we tend to take this natural resource for granted. But water conservation, already a subject of vital importance in drier parts of the world, including much of Africa and the western United States, is becoming an issue of global concern. And as climate change concerns intensify, water conservation will become an ever bigger issue.

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Because water systems consume huge amounts of energy for pumping and treatment, water conservation is directly linked to the carbon footprint of a company, city or household. Cutting water use means cutting energy use, and many companies are finding innovative ways to decrease the flow.

What's on tap?

Next month, Labatt Breweries of Canada will be get a Water Efficiency Award from the Ontario Water Works Association, the industry association for drinking-water professionals. The Canadian brewing industry has made big strides in water conservation, and, over the past decade, Labatt's brewery in London, Ont., has cut the amount of water it uses to make beer by half.

Brewing is a surprisingly water-intensive industry. There's a lot of equipment and bottles that need to be washed, steam pours off during the brewing process, and water is also used for cooling. In 2003, for every bottle of beer produced, the brewery used the equivalent of more than seven bottles of water. Labatt cut that ratio dramatically, saving enough water to fill nearly 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year just at the brewery in London, where the company began its brewing tradition 164 years ago.

"It's about controlling costs, but also about creating a better environment for us," says Jeff Ryan, director of corporate affairs for Labatt Breweries of Canada. "If we don't protect and save water, we might not be able to brew beer in London for another 164 years."

One of the big changes came in 2008, when the brewery started re-using water in its bottle washing process. Instead of using fresh water from the city, it would use the water from the final rinse of one batch of bottles for the pre-rinse of the next batch. Along with improving sensors on the washers, this saved 86 million litres a year, the equivalent of 34 swimming pools.

In 2009 the company took a close look at its pasteurizers and realized they weren't running as efficiently as they could. With some fine-tuning, the company saved a further 40 million litres of water annually. Last year they added another 28 million litres in savings by sending the relatively clean grey water from the pasteurizing system to their powerhouse to use for chilling liquids used in the brewing process.

Other changes were as simple as using smaller spray nozzles at higher pressure for rinsing and making sure equipment is running as efficiently as possible. Steam from the brewing process is captured and run through generators to produce electricity before being condensed and re-used. The plant has its own 4-megawatt natural gas co-generation facility to produce electricity and steam, providing about 65 per cent of the brewery's energy needs.

To ensure maximum efficiency, Labatt checks its performance against a database maintained by its parent company, Anheuser-Bush InBev, the world's largest brewer, with facilities in 23 countries. This way, the London brewery will know if, for example, its bottle washer is using more water than the same model is at one of the company's other breweries. With daily tracking, problems can be quickly identified and dealt with, Mr. Ryan says.

Most of the ideas came from workers on the brewery floor because they know the process best, he adds. Those ideas are shared on a company intranet, so if workers in London realize that they could use a smaller hose, then a brewery in Edmonton can also benefit.

Thirsty industry

While getting people to take shorter showers and buy low-flow toilets has an effect, serious water conservation programs have to involve industry. In Toronto, for example, just 1,000 users account for a third of all water consumption. At a time when the city is cutting programs everywhere, including some of its residential water conservation programs, it is continuing its Capacity Buy-Back Program, aimed at industry and large institutions, such as hospitals.

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