Cheers to biodiversity: The links between the beverage industry and nature
Beverages form a major part of our everyday lives, from our morning cup of coffee to a Friday night beer. As consumers become more environmentally conscious, businesses need to become aware of their dependence on the biosphere. So, how do beverage companies influence the environment throughout their value chain?
The main biodiversity impacts at each stage of the beverage value chain (Image Source: Nature Positive)
All beverages rely on agriculture to provide raw materials, whether they are coffee beans, fruit or grains. Crops are often farmed in monoculture plantations to maximise yields. This can have significant negative impacts on biodiversity as it removes natural habitats and limits opportunities for native plants and animals to grow alongside the crops. For example, blue agave is grown to produce tequila and it relies on lesser long-nosed bats to pollinate the plants. However, blue agave fields are harvested before flowering, so the bats cannot feed on the nectar. This is damaging the positive relationship between the two species and might be a factor for lesser long-nosed bat decline. As pollinator numbers fall, this means that the number of blue agave plants will decline too, which puts the tequila industry at risk. Beverage companies should encourage biodiversity to ensure the continuity of their raw material supply.
Blue agave is also named tequila agave as it is the base ingredient in tequila (Image Source: David García Sandoval on Unsplash)
The production of dairy drinks contributes to deforestation, whether they are produced in the UK or elsewhere in the world. In the UK, soybeans are predominantly used as animal feed and around 59% of them are imported from Brazil. As soybean production is the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, dairy beverages produced in the UK can still drive deforestation elsewhere.
Plant-based drinks are being used as a more sustainable alternative to dairy. In the UK, one in every three people has switched to plant-based milk, which uses less water and land and releases fewer greenhouse gases compared with its dairy counterpart. However, these products also have hidden environmental costs. For example, according to a life cycle assessment of unsweetened almond milk, one bottle (1.42 litres) needs 175 litres of water to be produced, most of which comes from almond farming. Considering most almond production occurs in drought-prone areas, this contributes to water stress.
Processing agricultural products to make beverages is energy intensive. Energy is required for refrigeration, compression and heating (for pasteurisation). When the energy is sourced from fossil fuels, these processes contribute to climate change. To reduce energy consumption, companies could switch to renewable energy sources or invest in improving the energy efficiency of their equipment.
Most of the packaging used in the beverage industry is plastic. Plastic takes hundreds of years to completely break down and it degrades into smaller particles called microplastics. Microplastics are formed when plastic is improperly disposed of and enters the environment as litter. Today, microplastics are found all over the globe. These are of concern because they carry toxic chemicals. If ingested by wildlife, these plastics and chemicals can accumulate in the organism’s tissues.
Glass is perceived as a more sustainable alternative as it can be reused and recycled more times than plastic. Switching to refillable glass bottles reduces the amount of waste by 16%, . However, glass recycling and reusing is more energy intensive, and glass is heavier, which increases the emissions released during transport.
Refillable glass milk bottles could be delivered to your doorstep or collected at your local store (Image Source: Elizabeth Dunne on Unsplash)
The global drinks industry involves large numbers of logistical centres. Long distance transportation adversely affects biodiversity through atmospheric pollution. Beverage companies can switch to local suppliers or use zero-emitting vehicles. This is especially important to reach the 2050 net zero emissions shipping target.
There are many logistical challenges when storing drinks. For example, ambient drinks require aluminium in their packaging to keep them aseptic. However, this requires energy to produce, so makes a contribution to climate change. Although this process cannot be changed, the use of more energy-efficient equipment will reduce the consumption of energy.
Beverage companies face many logistic challenges when storing drinks. For example, ambient drinks require aluminium in their packaging to keep it aseptic. However, this requires more energy to produce and has a bigger contribution to climate change. Although this process cannot be changed, the use of more energy efficient equipment will reduce the consumption of energy.
Drink packaging is often found on our streets as litter, which can harm wildlife directly when species become entangled or wounded by it. A study by Keep Britain Tidy found that the type of drinks container influences littering behaviour. More people prefer cans because they are smaller (330 ml as opposed to 500 ml bottles) and cheaper. But citizens are more likely to litter cans because they cannot be resealed. Therefore, companies can reduce littering by redesigning bottles to 330 ml to encourage their use or by removing the separate non-recyclable plastic label.
Single-use plastics are an increasingly common sight and they pollute the environment (Image Source: Nick Fewings on Unsplash)
Beverage companies are starting to recognise their responsibility for achieving a nature positive and net-zero future. Four companies signed up to be nature positive during the COP26 event, including Arla, Nestle, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners and Unilever. This is very promising and a great start towards a more sustainable drinks industry.
If you would like to find out how Nature Positive can help your company to reduce its impact on biodiversity, visit our services page. We are a leading environmental management consultancy, with expertise in biodiversity footprinting, supply chain risk assessments and sustainability strategies.
Nature Positive article authors: Luka Brown & Kelsey Monteith
*Banner photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash