The salty, oily flavor of progress


Got a headache from all the recent back and forth over rhetoric and politics of climate change? Last week, Frito-Lay served up a refreshingly rhetoric-free reminder that the future is coming no matter what we might do to encourage (or stop) it. Under their net zero initiative, the salty snack behemoth will be taking an Arizona potato chip factory almost entirely off the grid, running it on renewable energy and recycled water.

The project stands out to me mostly for what it is not:

Net zero is not a demonstration project for showy or questionable new technologies. In fact, the plans rely for the most part on defiantly unsexy technologies: solar concentrators, which are sort of the Jan Brady of the solar energy world; methane digesters, a technology that predates World War II; waste heat collection, an efficiency measure that Bill McKibben lamented the obscurity of just as Sean Casten was raising half a billion dollars to fund such projects. Etc.

Net zero is not a tiny showcase project. The Arizona plant is medium-sized by industrial food production standards, which means that a mere half million pounds of potatoes wend through its system of robot fryotronics per day. If the project is successful, elements will be rolled out to Frito-Lay’s other 37 plants. While this is exactly the type of industrial system that likely horrifies environmentalists for a score of other reasons, we can safely assume that potato chips aren’t going away any time soon.

Net zero is not an environmental feel-good initiative. Although Frito-Lay does plan on milking the PR value of the project (as they have every right to), the article is refreshingly free of save-the-world-through-better-snack-food rhetoric. Here’s David Haft, Frito-Lay’s group vice president for sustainability and productivity: “We said, ‘This might not make a hell of a lot of sense initially, but long term this is where we need to go.'”

Right. The retrofit will be complete by 2010, and will cut 50 to 75% of the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions. I’m not sure exactly where such projects fall on the spectrum of the politics-of-possibility to the politics-of-taking-away-everyone’s-toys. I do know that Frito-Lay estimates the costs of the project at only slightly above what they would have paid anyway over the next 25 years, and that’s using a conservative model that doesn’t factor in oil at $100 a barrel.

I wonder, does their model factor in a price for carbon? There’s an idea. Maybe if we put a price on carbon emissions, businesses would respond to those incentives…

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  1. Natalie - November 20, 2007

    Hmm. I was expecting to read that Frito Lay would be recycling its fry oil as biodeisel. Will that be next I wonder?

  2. Brandon G - November 20, 2007

    In response to Natalie, I agree. Any oil they can’t reuse and would otherwise dispose of could be burned on-site in diesel generators to provide electricity and heat.

  3. Adam Stein - November 20, 2007

    The article doesn’t go overly deeply into the details (and I couldn’t find anything better online elsewhere), but probably safe to assume that they haven’t neglected the fry oil. Biomass is definitely part of the plan.

  4. Aaron A. - November 20, 2007

    This is all just conjecture as it applies to Frito-Lay, but businesses won’t throw away something that they can easily sell. Even if they don’t use it in-house, I’m sure that fry oil will have a second life somewhere. As I recall, my old employer’s used french fry oil went (filtered, of course) to a cosmetics company.
    Anyway, I’m sure that there will be people insisting that we need to kick the processed-food habit immediately and permanently, but assuming that we as a nation are going to eat Cheetos no matter what, Net Zero is a neat project. It demonstrates viable projects that modern factories can implement using existing technology. That pre-empts about 80% of the arguments that do-nothings would use to discourage the project.
    — A.

  5. Nick - November 20, 2007

    Comments by Nick on 11-20-07 @3:30 PM
    Interesting observation, and one which raises some curiosity and objective reasoning by some perhaps. There is a Two Men and a Truck office/warehouse located in Mid-Michigan which is drawing much of its energy from solar panels mounted on three separate poles, and a wind turbine reaching close to 123 feet high.
    Not directly correlated to this subject on Frito-Lay and its cause, but one which this writer feels is another good step toward reducing air pollution.

  6. Jim M. - April 17, 2008

    I work at this facility and we have no waste fryer oil, it is all reused in the frying process.