Nestlé’s Solution to Selling 700 Million Gallons of Calif. Water Is to Stop Using Far Less

The company announced plans for a zero-water milk facility, but the CEO wants to bottle more for the Arrowhead brand in the drought-stricken state.

(Photo: Nestlé/Twitter)

May 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

During the historic drought now parching California, multinational food corporation Nestlé has been pumping water in the state to sell as its Arrowhead brand of bottled water under an expired permit to operate in the San Bernardino National Forest. The company did so during the last three extended dry stretches as well.

Though Nestlé is still in good standing with the Forest Service (paying bills, following regulations), the very idea of its diverting and profiting from scarce resources to sell a product that requires yet more water to manufacture its container—which often ends up in the ocean—has incensed many.

Now, the company has a new plan to reduce its water consumption. Announced Wednesday, the solution is to wring water from milk, turning a Modesto, California, factory that produces dairy products into a “zero water” facility.

As for halting the Arrowhead bottling operation? “Absolutely not. In fact, if I could increase it, I would,” Tim Brown, CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, said in a recent interview with Southern California Public Radio.

Brown contends that the 705 million gallons his company pumps out of the San Bernardinos each year—enough to supply about 2,100 homes for a year—is both negligible and put to good use.

“The reality is, demand for bottled water is higher than it has ever been, in large measure because people are looking for healthier alternatives to juices, soft drinks, and, in some cases, beer and wine,” he wrote in an op-ed for The San Bernardino Sun. “On top of that, the production of these beverages requires two to eight times as much water as bottled water, and that does not include the additional water necessary to grow the ingredients in those products.”

By making its Modesto factory its second “zero water” facility—the first opened in Mexico last year—Nestlé will stop drawing on dwindling municipal water resources for industrial uses, such as cooling storage tanks full of milk.

The estimated amount of water that would be saved, however, is 63 million gallons—less than a tenth of what Arrowhead takes. All told, Nestlé’s nine factories in California, some of which will also become “zero water” facilities eventually, use 1 billion gallons annually.

The technology that will be employed in Modesto takes advantage of the wastewater generated by dehydrating milk for Nestlé food products. The Mexican “zero water” plant processes nearly 370,000 gallons of fresh milk daily, yielding more than 260,000 gallons of water. That water is used in production, and more than half is captured and treated to be used again.

It’s inspiring efficiency if you’re only considering the factory itself. But the notion that wresting water from milk doesn’t draw on local water resources ignores what goes into dairy products. While cows themselves are relatively water-efficient—drinking three gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk—their feed is not. According to a 2012 study published in the journal Ecosystems, 98 percent of dairy’s water footprint is feed production. Because it’s more expensive to buy enough land for cows to pasture on, they are more typically kept in concentrated lots and fed alfalfa, which requires huge amounts of water to produce.

Estimates for the exact amount of water that goes into one gallon of milk vary wildly, but Mother Jones, based on USDA data, calculated 638 gallons.

So even if a “zero water” dairy facility is able to reuse 70 percent of the liquid in the milk it processes, as with the Nestlé factory in Mexico, it’s still deep in the hole when overall water use is considered.

As for Nestlé’s continued bottling operations in California, José Lopez, the company’s head of operations, said it would work toward greater efficiency there too.

“We are focused on how to adapt our bottling and our manufacturing operations, and our supply chain, to make them more resilient and more resistant to drought conditions,” he said in a company announcement about the “zero water” facility. “We will test innovative solutions, prove they are efficient and effective, and will share what we learn with others.”