How ‘cow water’ made ‘zero water consumption’ possible

I came across two fascinating stories when I was researching the story about ‘direct potable reuse’ that focused on how Windhoek, Namibia, has been using this technique to supplement its water supply in a very dry city. One was about beer – more about that tomorrow.

The other is about the “zero water consumption” program that the Swiss agri-food company, Nestlé, is using to dramatically save water at many of its baby milk plants worldwide by recovering huge amounts of the ‘cow water’ it uses to make baby formula and powdered milk.

Henri Nestlé was a pioneer in the field of infant nutrition and was, in 1866, the first person to develop a commercially successful baby food. Farine Lactée Henri Nestlé was a powder made from cow’s milk, wheat flour, and sugar and was the first baby food that did not require breast milk or animal milk. It quickly became the most popular baby food in Europe. (Breast milk is a healthy complete food for human babies and cow-based baby formulas, especially where safe water for mixing the formula is difficult to find, have sparked opposition.)

The first plant I read about was in Qingdao, in northeastern China, a region that suffers from chronic water stress. The plant reuses the large amount of water it removes from cow’s milk during the dehydration process and now saves an average of 500,000 liters of water a day. That is a total of 16,500 tons of water a month, the equivalent of six Olympic-sized pools. 

It does this thanks to a technique that recovers and treats the large volume of water in cow’s milk, removing the mineral salts, organic compounds and bacteria before injecting the purified water back into the plant’s water systems: cooling circuits, cleaning, industrial processes.

“It’s 87% water,” says Peter Stokes, key account manager at Veolia Water Technologies. “When you dehydrate it to make milk powder, you get huge amounts of water.” As well as recovering water for the plant, the technique limits the amount of wastewater that is discharged into the environment.

“In certain production and weather conditions, our plants even produce more water than they consume,” Stokes says. “That’s what happened at the Nestlé plant in Mexico, which in 2018 sold its excess recycled water to a neighboring plant.”

Photo by Monika Kubala on Unsplash

So even though the first plant I read about was in China, that 71-year-old Mexican factory, which had a $15m upgrading in 2014, was the first ‘zero water plant’ in the world. It was so called because it did not rely on external water sources. Instead it extracts all the water it needs from the cow milk as it is powdered, and puts it back to work.

That saves 1.6 million liters of water per year, about 15% of Nestlé’s entire water use in Mexico, while pumping out 60,000 tonnes of Nido infant formula each month.

Nestlé’s approach was created in collaboration with the dairy technology firm GEA Filtration, which is part of Germany’s GEA, and the French waste water treatment company Veolia Water. While other companies also are exploring zero water technology, Nestlé told the Financial Times that its treatment-plus-filtration process is unique. It said, in 2014, that it aimed to roll out the technology in other plants worldwide.

In 2015, the Nestlé USA milk factory in Modesto, California, was transformed into a ‘zero water’ factory that was expected to save nearly 63 million gallons (238,000 cubic meters) of water each year. The $7 million project was due to be completed by the end of 2016.

Modesto factory

Two factories in Brazil have since gone ‘zero water’ and four more were planned to come online in the country by 2018. Going forward similar plans are in place for facilities in South Africa, India, Pakistan, China and California, says Nestlé.

Nestlé says it uses a three-phase approach to reduce water in its factories around the world.

First, engineers look for ways to optimize the existing manufacturing processes to reduce water use. Second, they look for opportunities to reuse the water already being used. In the third phase, they deploy innovative methods to extract water from raw materials and recycle it. The ‘zero-water’ factory is an example of third-phase innovation.

Using this triple-pronged approach in more than 80 factories worldwide since 2010 has enabled an overall reduction in water usage of 25% since 2010.

Across the entire company, Nestlé has 516 water saving projects at its factories, saving 3.7 million m3 of water every year – equivalent to 1,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The global research organization World Resources Institute is helping Nestlé to save water by ensuring water management is environmentally, socially, and economically beneficial.

In 2010, Nestlé set a number of ambitious sustainability goals, including:

  • Reducing water usage by 20% by 2025
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2025
  • Using 100% renewable energy by 2025
  • Making all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025

Its water conservation measures include using water-efficient irrigation systems, recycling water, and capturing rainwater.


Zero water. Nestle, Nov. 2017

This factory uses water from the dehydrating milk process to power its systems and reduce water stress. Up to us, Veolia,

Nestlé To Transform Milk Factory To ‘Zero Water’ In California. Nestle, May 13, 2015

Nestlé factory reduces water use by almost two thirds in less than 12 months. New Food Magazine, Aug. 30, 2013

Nestlé milk factory shake-up aims to end drain on water resources. Financial Times, Oct. 29, 2014

Cover image by Pixabay on Pexels.

2 thoughts on “How ‘cow water’ made ‘zero water consumption’ possible

  1. I would hesitate to promote this. Nestle would need to do **at least** 20x more to make up for their decades of thoughtless resource extraction and profiteering. I am guessing only an improvement in their bottom line led them to save this much water. Follow the money?

    • I did think about this for a while because I know there are many people with strongly held views on this company and its activities, and I respect that. However, when it comes to saving our increasingly scarce water, innovation and actions matter. This story is an example of how a process that had been using a lot of water is now saving a lot of groundwater and reducing the amount of wastewater that is produced. We need is a lot more of this kind of innovation.

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