Nestlé intros AI tech on journey to net zero emissions

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The WhiteBox technology is based in a hub at the Nestlé Babelegi factory.
The WhiteBox technology is based in a hub at the Nestlé Babelegi factory.

Food and drink manufacturing conglomerate Nestlé East and Southern Africa has deployed artificial intelligence (AI)-powered solutions at its Babelegi factory in Pretoria.

It hopes this will help it meet its 2030 sustainability target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in all its operations.

In partnership with The Emissions Capture Company (ECCO), Nestlé says it has successfully piloted machine-learning-based technology at industrial scale, to deliver significant scope one emission reductions and wastewater recycling.

The pilot project, which has been running for 8 000 hours so far, uses ECCO’s proprietary WhiteBox technology, a machine-learning-based system that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and recycles wastewater.

The technology, claimed to be an “industry first in Africa”, forms part of a large set of tools and machinery situated in a hub within the manufacturer’s Pretoria premises. Using AI, it captures CO2 from flue gas emissions, recycles industrial wastewater and creates sustainable green products.

ECCO, which has offices in SA, Turkey and UK, is a global greentech firm specialising in using green chemistry and a sub-set of AI to extract carbon dioxide from harmful emissions, and uses it as an ingredient in everyday green products.

These can be sold directly for animal feed, human food, consumer goods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, or used to eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions.

Speaking yesterday during a media tour at the Babelegi factory in Hammanskraal, Saint-Francis Tohlang, corporate communications and public affairs director at Nestlé ESAR, noted the partnership with ECCO demonstrates a significant evolution of the company’s production processes.

He added Nestlé is looking to take the project to the next phase, where it will scale similar operations to other factories, to deliver significant reductions in scope one emissions.

“As we know, the agriculture industry is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, and our mission is to move towards regenerative agriculture and reduce emissions by 50% by the year 2030, and eventually achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“Our global commitment to reduce our impact on the environment influences every part of our business today. This partnership with ECCO demonstrates a significant evolution of our production processes to embrace circular principles at every step. We are proud to be pioneering this industry-first technology on the African continent.”

Switzerland-headquartered Nestlé manufactures a wide range of products, including baby food, medical food, bottled water, breakfast cereals, coffee and tea, confectionery, dairy products, pet foods and snacks. It is present in 187 countries around the world, with around 291 000 employees.

Inside a Nestlé factory lab where carbon emissions and water quality is tested.
Inside a Nestlé factory lab where carbon emissions and water quality is tested.

According to data collected from the pilot project, coupled with ECCO’s machine-learning-based research, the WhiteBox can be calibrated to capture 25% to 70% of scope one CO2 emissions and recycle a significant amount of available industrial wastewater per site.

Much of this is done through direct air capture and energy-efficient gas processing, using low-fuel consumption methods, notes Nestlé.

Scope one CO2 emissions are those released to the atmosphere as a direct result of a set of activities, at the firm/manufacturer level.

ECCO’s WhiteBox joins several ongoing long-term projects under Nestlé’s sustainability initiative, which the company says are premised on three key pillars: rethink, reduce and repurpose.

More companies across the globe are committing to reduce emissions to net zero by 2040, as governments introduce policies to make mandatory the transparent and accurate reporting of greenhouse gas emissions data.

"We are proud to have partnered with Nestlé in successfully demonstrating the capabilities of our cutting-edge technology set,” said Thomas F Darden, ECCO CEO and founding board member of William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and board member for the Yale Centre for Environmental Law & Policy.

“This partnership helps pave the way for a green economy. Our approach was holistic, ensuring pollution remediation was key, along with other considerations, such as water recycling and low fuel consumption. By design, the shift from legacy technologies to low carbon emission processes also improves livelihoods through employment creation, training and upskilling.”

According to Nestlé, the industrial-scale pilot project has, since inception, directly upskilled and employed 15 people from the local community and it has the potential to create more jobs when scaled.

“Part of the operation has also included skills development for the rest of our staff at the facility to ensure a just transition to low emission operations, with no one left behind,” concluded Tohlang.

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