The festive season is once again upon us. Among all the merriment stomachs will be filled and the drinks will flow; yet it is also an opportune moment to consider the impacts that such consumption has on our water resources. Most food items and drinks produced use and pollute a certain amount of water – not only in the processing stage, but also along the whole value chain. For previous Christmases we have reviewed the water-related impacts of fish and turkey. This time we look at water in the production of beer, chocolate and potato crisps – three things that would brighten up any Christmas party.
Behind the boozy scenes…
So how much water does the production of beer consume? The Water Footprint Network estimates a total water footprint of 298 litres per 1 litre of beer. In other words, a single pint of beer (0.57 litres) can take up to 170 litres of water to make. Over 90% of this water footprint can be attributed to the growing of required crops (such as barley). The rest of the water footprint is spread across other manufacturing stages, such as those in breweries.
There is no comprehensive analysis on China’s beer water footprint to date. However, by assuming that brewery processes account for the remaining 10% of water use, not related to agriculture, a total footprint can be estimated.
China’s 2015 beer production had an estimated water footprint of around 2.6 trn litres
In China, the average brewery water footprint in 2013 stood at around 5.5 litres per 1 litre of beer produced. Based on this, the total water footprint of beer in China is at least 55 litres of water per 1 litre of beer. This is equivalent to around 30 litres of water per 1 pint of beer – roughly the volume needed for a 3-minute shower. Given that China produced 47.2bn litres of beer in 2015, it can be further extrapolated that at least 2.6trn litres of water was used for China’s beer value chain in that year.
Beer in China becoming more popular
Moreover, beer (and alcohol in general) is becoming more and more popular in China. Between 2009 and 2013, the per capita consumption of beer increased from 30.2 litres/yr to 34.2 litres/yr. In comparison, the global per capita consumption of beer is only 33 litres/yr. That said, absolute beer production in the country has dipped since 2013, when beer production was at 50.6bn litres. Nevertheless, China is still the leading producer of beer in the world – can this be sustained given existing water stress?
Crisps & Chocolate: Snacking on water
How about the snacks we eat? Highly processed foods such as potato crisps and chocolate tend to consume a lot of water. The total water footprint of potato crisps is around 925 litres of water per kg. As expected, growing the potato takes the biggest portion of water. Potato crisp processing then requires additional water to clean the potatoes, produce cooking oil for deep frying, produce packaging, and so on.
Only 28% of consumers in China snacked on crisps in 2012 – room to grow
In 2012, China produced 81,500mn kg of potato crisps, a 15.1% increase from 2005. A growing demand from the country’s population may further drive production and associated water use. As of 2012, only 28% of consumers in China snacked on potato crisps while the percentage is much larger at 86% for both France and the US.
More alarming is the total water footprint of chocolate, which consumes more than 17,000 litres of water per kg. For comparison, the water footprint for producing 1kg of beef (a notoriously large water user) is around 15,000 litres. This large footprint can largely be attributed to the water required to grow cocoa beans.
Large water footprint of chocolate production is not limited to China – mainly in cocoa growing countries
China is not a main cocoa producer, and hence does not bear the brunt of the water impact. However, China did produce 397mn kg of chocolate in 2015. The country’s chocolate production does not seem to be slowing either, with a year-on-year growth of more than 10% between 2011 and 2015. Although most of the total water footprint does not occur in China, the global water impact of producing this snack deserves more recognition.
Wastewater discharge also an issue - 1L of beer produces 2.5-10L of brewery wastewater in China
Further tainting the jolly mood is wastewater discharge, which is also an issue to consider. The water used by breweries to make beer cannot simply be discharged back into the environment. Brewery wastewater generally contains high sugar and alcohol content, a low pH and high temperatures. In China, making 1 litre of beer produces 2.5 to 10 litres of brewery wastewater on average. “Fermentation industries” as a whole accounted for 2.3% of China’s total wastewater discharge in 2013. Wastewater is also generated at chocolate factories due to operations such as cleaning, roasting, grinding and mixing. In total, the manufacturing of “foods, wine, drinks and refined teas” in China was responsible for discharging 1.3bn tonnes of industrial wastewater in 2014.
There is no need to turn into Scrooge though
There is, however, room for joy and optimism. There are ongoing attempts to reduce the water use and wastewater discharge of the food and beverage industry. Recently, researchers in Colorado have found a way to use wastewater from brewing beer to produce lithium ion battery electrodes. Also, large beer companies have made moves to improve their water use efficiency. The water-to-beer ratio of Budweiser brewing factories in China has declined for five years in a row. In 2014, they produced 1 litre of beer with only 3.1 litres of water, 46% less than what was needed in 2009.
Water use efficiency & wastewater treatment solutions are becoming more widespread
Efforts are also evident in the chocolate industry. In late 2014, Mars Chocolate opened a new anaerobic wastewater treatment plant, the first of its kind in Europe. The methane technology used purifies 99% of wastewater though a biological process, while the biogas released generates energy to help power the onsite chocolate factory.
Food and drink help to create a festive atmosphere for a time like Christmas. But as is often with the happy times, worrying consequences may be lurking just around the corner. More attention must be afforded to the amount of water that is used not only by producing beer, crisps and water, but by the food and beverage industry as a whole. This is particularly pertinent given China’s water challenges and the increasingly rich diets of its population. If we are to enjoy many more merry Christmases, we must keep tackling the water risks embedded in our food and drink.
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