Employing the system

The food industry is often perceived as having a relatively low environmental impact when compared to the likes of the chemical industry, heavy engineering or power generation. The reality, however, can be very different. James Cherry, environmental consultant with 14000 & ONE Solutions, takes time out to espouse the EMS.

The food and drink sector is the fourth largest industrial energy user in the UK (behind iron & steel, chemicals and paper), and one of the largest sources of waste. When you take into account the huge quantities of water consumed in both processing and cleaning operations, the associated wastewater and effluent generated, and the tonnes of packaging materials used by the industry, the environmental impact begins to seem more significant. When you add to this the impact of the vast distribution networks for food manufacturers and supermarkets, the whole picture takes on a very different appearance. This is further backed up by the food industry’s poor pollution record over the years. In 1998, it accounted for 15% of the most serious industrial water pollution incidents recorded by the Environment Agency in England and Wales.

Internal resistance

Given this high level of environmental impact it is perhaps surprising to learn that of the first 1,000 ISO 14001 certificates issued in the UK, only around 20 went to food companies. So why is it that the food industry has been so slow to adopt Environmental Management Systems? And could there be a benefit to the food industry if more companies took the EMS route?

Firstly, we need to consider the pressures that face food manufacturers and where the real priorities lie. For all food producers the areas of food safety and quality will inevitably be top of the list. Pressure is strong from the public (who hasn’t heard of E.Coli, Salmonella or BSE these days, or seen the potential damaging effects of a food scare?), from legislation and from customers (particularly the major supermarkets). Ever since the Food Safety Act of 1990, the pressures exerted up the supply chain have noticeably increased, with most manufacturers inundated with food safety audits and questionnaires from all angles. Most food companies will have adopted some form of Quality Management System, invariably with third party certification to either ISO 9000 or the more recent British Retail Consortium standard (or both). In many cases the systems that have been developed are over-bureaucratic and time consuming to maintain. The thought of developing a further management system for an area of less perceived importance is often then met with some internal resistance and seen as somewhat of a burden.

Potential opportunities

This doesn’t have to be the case with an Environmental Management System. A well thought out EMS can be designed to complement an existing Quality System, and if it focuses on environmental performance improvements then the potential benefits to the organisation can be tremendous, in both financial terms (through increased efficiency) and through reduced environmental risk and liability.

The use of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) as a means of tracking quality performance and production throughput is widespread in the food industry. By adopting similar systems and developing Environmental Performance Indicators (EPIs) to monitor and improve environmental performance, particularly in waste minimisation and energy efficiency programmes, there are significant savings to be made, which perhaps most significantly contribute straight to the bottom line. By building these indicators into the framework of an EMS, environmental performance improvement can be integrated into the day-to-day operations of an organisation in the same way that food safety and quality have been.

The potential opportunities to be gained by the food industry are well illustrated and supported by the government-run Environmental Technology Best Practice Programme (ETBPP), now renamed Envirowise, and Energy Efficiency Best Practice Programme (EEBPP). The number of case studies and good practice guides for the food and drink sector has shown a steady increase over the last couple of years as some food manufacturers have begun to embrace the concepts of environmental performance improvement. Envirowise is a very useful source of information for the food industry, and its recent publication (ET27), Intra-company benchmarking in the food industry – its benefits and challenges, touches on the concept of KPIs as a tool for environmental improvement.

In considering the pressures facing food manufacturers on the issues of food safety and quality, the main sources were the public, customers and legislation. When it comes to environmental pressures, the drivers are very much from the same sources. With the possible exception of legislation (the forthcoming IPPC regulations and Climate Control Levy will have a dramatic impact on large sections of the food industry), the pressures for environmental performance improvement from customers and the public have not been as strong as those for food safety. However, public awareness of environmental issues is continually rising and supermarkets are starting to look at the environmental performance of their supply chains. ASDA and Marks & Spencers, for example, are currently involved in the DTI-sponsored Project Acorn, working with a number of their smaller suppliers on implementing an EMS and Environmental Performance Indicators.

Better time

With all of these pressures increasing, in an industry where profit margins can be very tight, there has probably never been a better time for companies to develop an EMS and make some significant savings. Most environmental good practice is good business practice, and the EMS is based more on common sense than rocket science. Implementation of an Environmental Management System should be seen very much as an opportunity and not a burden.

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