Don’t Stick to the Plan: A Sustainability Project that Evolved for the Better

How our Carnation production facility in California switched things up to save more water

Nelson Pena
Apr 3, 2019 · 4 min read

This story was originally published in 2019 and has been updated to reflect recent progress.

Every cook — from parents at home making meals for their kids to chefs in Michelin star restaurants — knows that the best meals can look pretty different than their original recipes.

In the kitchen, you have to be prepared to adapt in the moment — adding milk when your batter is too thick, or roux when your sauce is too thin. The best chefs understand that a recipe is a starting point. At Nestlé, we take the same approach to our sustainability work. Throughout our sustainability projects, the systems and communities around us change, and we continually learn more about our own opportunities for impact with real-time feedback. We’ve learned that ‘sticking with the plan’ can be a liability, and nowhere has been a better case-in-point than the agility of our Carnation team in Modesto, California.

Our Carnation evaporated milk production facility in California has shown us how much continual improvement it takes to get the most out of our sustainability efforts. Through continual feedback, the team made valuable changes to water conservation efforts after learning that a different strategy could increase water savings by billions of gallons.

Double the Savings

In 2015 we committed to save 144 million gallons of water at our food and beverage plants in California. By 2018, we had reduced our water use by twice that — saving 284 million gallons. Our Modesto manufacturing facility led the way, reducing its water use by 50% between 2014 and 2020.

The facility invested in innovative technology and developed a state-of-the-art water recycling program. Today, thanks to these efforts and new city investments in managing wastewater, the Modesto facility now actually returns more water for reuse to the community than it uses.

The process we use to make evaporated milk, a versatile dairy product that adds creaminess to recipes, involves using high heat to remove 60% of the water from fresh milk — water we can capture. As a result of our investments, a portion of that water is now recycled and treated for use in the facility, greatly reducing our reliance on the municipal water supply. Thanks to the City of Modesto upgrading its own waste water treatment facility, we deliver our excess recycled water to the Delta Mendota canal, which is used for irrigation. We’ve invested to upgrade equipment in our facility and optimize processes to conserve even more water in the process. In 2020, we returned more than 70 million gallons of water to farmers growing crops through this process.

Shifting Strategy, Saving Water

When we initially developed our water conservation plan, there was no way to capture and recycle the water we produced for irrigation outside the facility. We had planned to use “zero water” technology — using all the recycled water within our facility and not using any local freshwater resources — until we found that the city’s new investments created an even better way forward. Our involvement with the Alliance for Water Stewardship and the California Water Action Collaborative helped us to understand that we could save more water by focusing on the whole watershed, rather than just our facility.

Collaborating with these groups completely shifted our perspective, and we changed the second phase of our water conservation plan in Modesto. We’re now investing in a water conservation project in partnership with Sustainable Conservation who has been working with farmers in the community using innovative subsurface drip irrigation technology. Their novel system re-uses nutrient rich water, watering crops at their roots where it’s most beneficial and greatly reducing overall water use.

Taking this approach means we can potentially help save billions of gallons of water, compared with the millions of gallons saved by solely working within the confines of our own facility. As a bonus, when used on dairy farms, subsurface drip irrigation can help increase crop yields, use water more efficiently, and reduce the use of fertilizer. There are already encouraging returns in this area — dairy farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley piloting innovative irrigation systems have grown up to 15% more crop with nearly 50% less water.

It can be hard to let go of an original vision, but the experience of our Modesto team, who stayed nimble and dramatically improved water savings, has taught us a huge lesson. We can apply this same flexibility and continuous improvement to all our sustainability projects across the country, with an eye toward making them as effective as possible. When adapting in real time, like for the perfectly crafted meal, the results make it worthwhile.

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