‘It’s not a quick and easy thing to do’
Weetabix Food Company, owned by CPG holding company Post Holdings, specializes in breakfast cereals. The company has Alpen, Ready Brek, Weetos and the Weetabix brand in its portfolio, including the UK’s best-selling muesli: Weetabix Original.
In line with the UK Government’s goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, Weetabix Food Company has set out a roadmap to produce a net-zero box of Weetabix Original.
The company has almost 30 years to reach its goal. “We don’t see it as a quick and easy thing,” John Petre, the company’s supply chain, procurement and technical director, to FoodNavigator. To achieve this goal, the company has identified “building blocks” that will help it achieve this goal, from operational efficiencies to green energy and regenerative farming practices.
Why Net-Zero instead of CO2-Neutral?
With the agri-food industry responsible for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, food manufacturers are under pressure to improve their sustainability footprint. Much of this comes from governments, investors and consumers.
In response, a growing number of food and beverage manufacturers are committing to “net zero” or “carbon neutrality” claims. For a company to be considered net zero, it must remove as many greenhouse gases from the atmosphere within its supply chain as it produces. Carbon neutrality, on the other hand, can be achieved if all emissions that cannot be decarbonized are neutralized by supporting environmental projects.
Weetabix Food Company takes the net-zero path for their Weetabix Original breakfast cereals. The decision came because they had an “end goal in mind,” explained Petre. “We didn’t want to get dragged into things along the way [such as questionable carbon credit schemes] It made us feel better, but we wouldn’t diminish our own impact.”
In fact, some carbon offset programs have been criticized for not reducing climate emissions and thus contributing to greenwashing.
“If there are credible carbon neutral programs out there we’d love to support and participate in them, but it feels like we’re not going to solve the problem unless we actually remove the carbon we produce. ”
So if Weetabix isn’t turning to carbon credits, at least for now, how does it plan to reduce the carbon emissions associated with the production of its Weetabix Original product by 2050?
Continuous improvement of operational efficiency
One of the key ways Weetabix is reducing, and will continue to reduce, carbon emissions is by improving operational efficiencies. This means that whenever a device needs to be replaced, Weetabix does it with sustainability in mind.
For example, when Weetabix needed to replace its transformers (which distribute power on-site), it chose energy-efficient replacement devices that limited power loss during the distribution process. “It’s a big capital investment, but as we’re constantly replacing our manufacturing equipment to keep it up to date, it’s a great way to reduce energy use and make ourselves more efficient.”
This isn’t unique to Weetabix, Petre suggested. “Any major manufacturer would do that. We’re always looking for ways to do things better, produce less waste and use less energy. It’s in our DNA as a manufacturer; The carbon footprint gives just one more reason this is an important activity.”
100% recyclable packaging
Another pillar of Weetabix’s sustainability program is packaging. This year, the company swapped the packaging of its Weetabix Original biscuits for recyclable paper packaging. Its goal is to have 100% recyclable packaging in the UK, which if it hasn’t been achieved yet, is “extremely close”.
Five years ago around 90% of Weetabix Original packaging was recyclable and now when the rollout is complete it will be 100%.
The new packaging was developed in collaboration with its suppliers, explained Petre. “It’s up to us to make the right choices, ask about sustainable options and make sure we test and test them with our products. The packaging plays many roles: it protects the product, extends its shelf life and ensures that the product tastes great when it arrives.
“We want to make sure none of these things are compromised while also making packaging sustainable.”
Due to packaging changes, Weetabix was able to reduce its carbon footprint by 648.4 tons per year.
reducing emissions from wheat
To produce the zero-carbon Weetabix Original, the raw material – wheat – must be at least carbon neutral, if not carbon negative.
To assess the current carbon footprint of Weetabix Original, the company conducted studies with its farmers to examine the various factors that contribute to the carbon emissions associated with the production of their wheat.
The first study the company completed this year of 17 of its farmers, who are responsible for producing a third of the wheat supplied to make Weetabix biscuits, found that their greenhouse gas emissions for the 2021 harvest are likely to be between 40 and 50% lower than the standard UK wheat production emission factors used in previous calculations.
The benchmarking success is due to the fact that Weetabix set up a collective of British farmers back in 2010. The Growers’ Group is made up of 350 growers, all based within 50 miles of the company’s Northamptonshire factory. They grow about 75,000 tons of wheat every year on more than 4 million hectares.
Working with global data platform Map of Ag, which provides insights into the agribusiness, Weetabix was able to help some growers within its Growers’ Group collect carbon footprint data more easily and provide information that enabled them to carefully audit their processes.
In addition, farmers showed high nitrogen use efficiency, resulting in reduced impacts on air and water quality.
“We expected the performance of our farmers to be pretty good. But it turned out that their carbon footprint for the wheat they produced for us was 40-50% smaller [than the standard]” explained Peter.
Following the success of the first carbon footprint study, Weetabix plans to repeat the assessment with more farmers over the next few years, with the aim of sourcing carbon-neutral wheat. In the long term, making its wheat production carbon negative is “absolutely” Weetabix’s goal, the sustainability chief told the publication.
The company also plans to work with smaller groups of growers to evaluate new technologies, such as B. Accurate nitrogen applications and soil assessments to accelerate its CO2 reduction strategy.
Green energy and water saving initiatives
One of the quick wins initiated by Weetabix was to replace fossil-based electricity with green alternatives. It was “pretty straightforward,” Petre recalled. “We just had to make sure that all the electricity we used was carbon-free.”
It has now succeeded: The company has secured a new contract that will power its site with 100% renewable electricity by 2025.
Weetabix has also been looking at ways it could produce renewable electricity itself, for example by installing solar panels on the roof of its facility. But the economics didn’t make sense, Petre suggested. “Our business is making breakfast cereals, we’re really good at that. We considered putting solar panels on our roof, but [considering] For economic reasons, it was better for us to buy the electricity and have other people invest in the solar panels than to do it ourselves.”
In addition, the Weetabix Food Company has initiated a water saving initiative. To date, the company has saved more than five million liters through a program that captures and reuses condensate in the manufacturing process.
“When we cook the wheat, we use steam”, explained Petre, comparing the technology to a “big pressure cooker”. Any steam that escapes is effectively wasted energy, so the company invested in steam traps. “The result is less vapor loss and waste…”
New technologies required
Although significant progress has already been made, achieving net-zero is no easy task. The company has many years to get there, just over 27 to be precise, which is badly needed, Petre explained. “The reason why the timeframe for CO2 reduction is so long is because there are some elements that will require technological changes.”
For example, in the Weetabix manufacturing process, the company bakes the wheat biscuits in an oven, which is an energy-intensive process. “Right now there is no technological way to bake without carbon. So I think some of the elements to get to zero will require technological changes.”
Weetabix, like its suppliers, is keeping an eye out for such technologies.
Other challenges will hopefully be resolved through an industry-wide movement towards carbon-neutral inputs, Petre suggested. “We don’t think for a moment that our suppliers will make things carbon neutral for us but not for others.”
Ultimately, the company recognizes that the challenge increases as net-zero approaches. “We have to keep at it [right to the end]and make sure we learn from the good things we’ve done and figure out what we need to do next.”