We often hear about innovation in the food industry as it relates to core business. Whether innovation is thought of as new product development, packaging design, or adoption of concepts like automation, the Internet of Things (IoT) or even blockchain, it is easy to focus on the glamorous, as opposed to the pragmatic aspects of future business.
Wastewater ranks among the most important sustainability challenges facing our agri-food system. As populations increase, product demand grows, as does the need for effective wastewater solutions. In the hope that ground water salination and ocean acidification won’t be our leading legacy, innovators are working to transform wastewater from a hazard into a profit-generating asset that works with the environment.
Industry is now entering an era where wastewater is seen as an asset of a mature sustainable business. It’s time for wastewater to contribute to the bottom line. Project delivery company, Wiley, has explored how to stop money from going down the drain and to make money off wastewater.
An example of next-generation wastewater treatment comes from the Norwegian company BioWater Technology. Its unique biofilm carrier blocks are designed to grow micro-organisms that efficiently absorb pollutants from the water. This process has proven effective in treating biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), a characteristic of food wastewater, which makes it harmful to the ecosystem.
Key to BioWater’s success is the ability to work with food processors. With outflows varying in richness, volume and temperature, it is easy to kill or overwhelm bio-wastewater processing organisms. BioWater can keep up with this fluctuating input and delivers excellent water processing outcomes in a cost-effective and energy-efficient way.
BioWater’s approach is a good solution for removing pollutants, however, it doesn’t transform wastewater into a revenue-generating asset.
To produce revenue from wastewater, algae is the food industry’s secret weapon. Algae has been used in two distinct ways in the management of waste. First, algae can be grown off the nutrients in wastewater, producing high-value bioproducts as the nutrients are extracted, cleaning the water. Second, algae can sequester carbon from the exhaust of coal and gas boilers, directly reducing the emissions of energy generation, while producing the same high-value bioproducts.
The opportunity for the food industry is that food processors bring together both a nutrient-rich wastewater stream and CO2 rich smoke. With these two resources at hand, it is possible to provide everything an algae culture needs, giving a unique edge to the food industry in profitable waste management.
If successful, this concept means food processors may cease to pay for wastewater treatment and will instead profit from their nutrient-rich waste stream by selling valuable bio-products. As a bonus, this will slash their direct CO2 emissions.
This kind of cooperation with biology is indicative of how industrial waste could be processed in future. The algae-based value generation concept is effective because it works with the organism, providing everything it needs through combining multiple waste streams. In this way, a small but complete ecosystem can be created, developing untapped value and transforming the food system from – an impost, to a constructive piece of the sustainability puzzle.
These ideas are still at the early stage, but conceptually speaking, it is certainly possible to grow algae and produce bioproducts directly from industrial waste streams. The economics of these solutions may take some time to develop but investment continues to flow into these areas and more solutions will begin to surface. As innovative companies enter the market, one thing is certain – profiting from waste streams will be too compelling for the market to ignore making this approach part of the future of responsible food businesses.