Separators and sustainability: how the right equipment can reduce the dairy industry’s climate impact

Emissions from cattle rearing are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas pollution. Indeed, methane produced by cows is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As consumers increasingly seek out climate-friendly products, the dairy industry is striving to reduce its climate impact. Measures include investing in innovative processing equipment such as low-energy separators and pasteurizers.
Cow grazing at sunset

Milk and other dairy beverages and foods are a thirsty business. Not just for the millions who consume the products, but also in terms of resources, such as energy. The dairy industry represents around 13 percent of Europe’s total food and drink sector and is one of the largest users of energy and water. Globally, agriculture accounts for 13.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Add processing to that figure and it is easy to appreciate the climate impact of food and beverage production.

Until relatively recently, efforts to reduce emissions have focused chiefly on dairy farms and transport. Increasingly, however, the spotlight is widening to processing as dairy companies and food processors come respond to consumers who want the products they consume to have as small a climate impact as possible.

This poses a challenge to dairy companies. But it also presents an opportunity.

An EU-funded study in 2018 found that technology optimisation and the adoption of innovative processing equipment could reduce water use by 30% and electricity consumption by 20%.

The picture is similar in the US, where the Innovation Centre for US Dairy spearheads a smart dairy initiative to help processors and manufacturers measure the energy and greenhouse gas emissions intensity of fluid milk production. In 2016, the centre joined forces with leading processors to produce a processor handbook offering guidance on how to calculate and report on sustainability metrics.

Quest for energy efficiency

In Britain, the UK Dairy Roadmap, an industry initiative, has raised industrial energy efficiency in dairy processing by 18% since 2008 and is targeting a 30 % cut in carbon footprint by 2025.

Saving the planet by saving energy also creates savings in another area of prime importance: money. “Reducing operating costs is a top priority for dairy producers in a highly competitive industry. Higher production and energy efficiency contributes to that,” says Lilly Li Global Environmental Manager for Processing Solutions and Equipment at Tetra Pak.

Sustainability, in other words, is good not only for the planet but also for the bottom line. Li says there is a growing desire among dairy processors to reduce emissions – as a route both to greening their portfolio and boosting competitiveness.

“Most of the biggest players in the industry have quite ambitious targets for reducing their carbon dioxide emissions. Typically, they are looking to achieve decreases of 20 to 50%.”

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Dairies in the Netherlands have perhaps gone further than in any other country in their search for sustainability. Jan Erik de Vries, Product Manager Key Components at Tetra Pak in the Netherlands, explains that already in 2008, all Dutch dairies signed the Clean and Economical Agriculture Sector Covenant – focusing on carbon dioxide reduction through energy savings, reuse of energy, sustainable generation of energy and energy efficiency – and the LTA3 agreement.

“The objective of the LTA3 agreement is to achieve an energy efficiency of 2% per year between 2005 and 2020,” he says. “Dairies focus on the reduction of greenhouse gases through energy efficiency, reuse of energy and sustainable energy generation. Generally this is done by using efficient centrifugal pumps in combination with highly efficient motors, centrifuges with low-pressure technology, heat recovery by water buffers and all kind of other initiatives to optimize plants.”

De Vries says these efforts are driven both by the Dutch government, but also by a desire among dairies to deliver to consumers products with a low environmental impact. He gives as an example the Dutch cooperative cheesemaker CONO Kaasmakers, which aspires to be the “greenest dairy in the world”. CONO Kaasmakers has invested €80m in a sustainable dairy – of which a significant amount was for Tetra Pak Processing equipment, including low-energy separators.

Every little helps

Separators are one area that processors can target for emissions reductions. A separator typically accounts for a small but still significant share of the energy consumption in dairy processing. It is not the most electricity-intensive process in the line (that role is filled by pasteurisers and UHT units including homogenizers, as well as cleaning-in-place equipment). But even small savings grow large over time.

In the longer term, investing in a low-energy separator can generate significant savings not just for the planet but also financially, especially when accompanied by optimization of other line equipment.

Food quality – another sustainability aspect – is also important when choosing a separator. Here, hermetic separators offer advantages compared to other designs as they do not let in air that can, for example, cause foaming.

But it is in energy saving that hermetic separators come into their own. The airtight design of the separator, with the inlet at the bottom and the outlet at the top, cuts energy use by 20% compared to other separator designs.

When combined with EncaptTM technology, which lowers the atmospheric pressure around the spinning bowl using a low-pressure pump to reduce air friction, the corresponding energy saving is an impressive 40%.

Jan Erik de Vries says: “Separators are not the most energy-intensive equipment in a dairy, but an energy-efficient separator make a considerable difference to our customers’ energy consumption. So choosing the right separator is becoming one way for our more environmentally minded customers to work towards their sustainability ambition.” 

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Ambitious sustainability targets

Tetra Pak is committed to protecting food, people and futures. Alongside its support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the company has a host of ambitious targets and strategies to support a sustainable future of our planet and the long-term success of our customers.

Tetra Pak has cut its own greenhouse gas emissions by 13% since 2010, despite selling 19% more packages during the period. Renewables now meet half the company’s energy need – a figure that will reach 100% by 2030.

Yet 40% of Tetra Pak’s climate impact comes from use of equipment by customers. The company therefore works daily with customers to find more efficient processing and packaging solutions.

The ultimate aim: to minimise waste and spoilage while reducing energy and water consumption. For higher productivity, lower costs and a healthier planet.

Read more about Tetra Pak’s approach to sustainability here