Sustainability in the Alcohol Industry

Sustainable initiatives may not be on the top of everyone’s mind right now with the current state of the world, but while we’re all pivoting and trying new things to maintain our livelihoods (and sanity) why not do it in a way that is more efficient and with a lower environmental impact? Data from countries on lock down show drastic pollutant reductions and ecosystem recoveries, which is great but it’s not a sustainable improvement. We’re all ready to get back to whatever semblance of normalcy will come after lock down is lifted. Once that happens though, will we be able to do the same things in the same ways? And even if we can, shouldn’t we at least think about doing things differently?

Stainless steel distillery equipment

Sustainability isn’t some one-size-fits-all practice that you follow like a baking recipe. Everyone has different circumstances with which they’re dealing and different constraints they can’t realistically remove. Solar power is a wonderful way to offset your energy costs, help the environment, and make your operation more energy independent. However many solar solutions and other sustainable initiatives have such a long payback period that anyone who is renting a space likely won’t be able to justify the cost. Distilling was originally devised as a way to utilize farm waste that otherwise would have been composted and turn it into something that actually contributes economically to the farming operation. That model is what will work for actual sustainable initiatives that will help your business reduce costs, increase efficiencies, and reduce waste.

Recycling Heat

Recycling has been a gold standard for sustainable initiatives for decades and for good reason. Every waste stream is a cost, and recovering or eliminating waste normally leads to savings. We all know about recycling paper, cans, and consumer goods, but that only scratches the surface of what can be done. We have a continuous distillation process that recycles as much heat as we can to increase efficiency of the system. Heat recycling is sometimes overlooked, but it can help reduce your carbon footprint and your monthly expenses by lowering your energy bill. It takes energy (and money) to heat a still to produce ethanol, and by using cross current heat exchangers at strategic points in our system, it helps the BTUs that you already paid for stay in the process and increase the overall efficiency. The energy efficiency of a continuous column still is a wonderful way to make your process more sustainable, but there are other things you can do in addition to that.

Repurposing Spent Grain

Spent grain from the fermentation process has a wide variety of uses, and there is likely a lot you can do with it based on where your operation is located. Even in the heart of a city, your closest farm is likely closer than you think. Feed for animal producers, compost for vegetable and grain farms, and many other applications may be available. It’s important to know the whole process in this case though. A farm may come and pick up the spent grain from your door, but if they drive 40+ miles to get it, is that really sustainable? There’s no easy answer because those farmers may be doing the most sustainable practices they have economically available, and as stated above, there’s no-one-size-fits-all solution. Another option could be to partner with a local bakery to turn spent grain into bread. This turns a waste stream into a revenue stream for the both of you and is a great sustainability initiative to look into.

Staying Local

The “local is better” mantra doesn’t always hold up when it comes to cost, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other advantages. Many local and small businesses have more flexibility to get you exactly what you need instead of providing you with a prepackaged program. While reducing your carbon footprint is a wonderful goal, it doesn’t always make the most business sense. You know your process better than anyone, but every process has inputs and outputs. By partnering with other small and/or local businesses, it’s possible to work together for your mutual benefit in ways that you may not be able to with larger companies.

Disposing of Waste Properly

The next best sustainable option when recycling isn’t feasible is to properly dispose of waste. Each state and municipality can have a different definition of what “proper” entails, and it may be overkill or it may not be enough to reach true sustainability. Dumping your heads cut down the drain is not a sustainable initiative by most people’s standards, and while it can be a good stainless steel cleaner, there may be other useful options. Universities may want it as a reagent for their chemistry departments or some other business may have a use for it. Make sure you comply with any local and federal regulations for transport of these materials and stay in compliance. As long as you’re operating within the law, it’s good to be creative to turn a waste stream into a revenue stream. This can apply to your process water as well. Where in your process can you use a “closed loop” system where the material is cycled through without the need for an input/output stream? It may be possible to use this in your heating and cooling systems with little or no additional cost, if you’re not already set up that way.

Things will likely change in ways that we don’t expect in the near term. New doesn’t always mean better, but a mix of old school and new school technology will likely be the future in many forms of production. It’s easy to imagine a future where everyone uses a bioreactor as a fermenter and the energy efficiency of a continuous column still to save on space and input costs, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. Look at your own environment and what makes sense to do in your community to help make your operation more efficient and sustainable.

>>Need help coming up with a more energy-efficient setup for your distillery? Contact the team at StillDragon today.