Note: This blog is part of a series by guest author Anthony Watanabe, documenting a year-long “REgeneration Tour” to research the business case for regenerative design.

Packed. That would be the theme one week before we leave for the start of the REgeneration Tour. House is packed up awaiting the movers. Bags are packed and ready for departure. Our minds are packed with last-minute items ranging from key dropoff to malaria prescriptions.

So, on my last business trip before the tour starts, why would it be any different when I arrived at Pearson International Airport the day after the worst flood in Toronto’s history? It too was packed with travellers hoping to get from A to B. It was July 8 and Toronto was still coming to terms with the 126 millimetres of rain that fell in just two hours the night before.

The chain reaction was impressive: the flooding triggered power outages, which in turn shut down the subway and traffic lights ultimately causing impenetrable traffic jams during rush hour. Outside of the downtown area, flooded basements were being inspected by candle-wielding homeowners all around the Greater Toronto Area. Authorities are estimating damages at over $600 million.

Two weeks before, I was in Calgary, Alberta, running our fourth Canadian Water Summit amidst the backdrop of the worst flooding in the history of the province. The damage tally there? Closer to $3 billion. The kicker? There is no insurance in Canada for overland flooding.

My REgeneration Tour is a one-year journey around the world to research and develop the business case for regenerative design. I’m interested to find out how profitable businesses can make a net positive impact on the environment. With an overdose of both meaning and irony provided by this sequence of extreme weather events, I boarded a plane for Arizona to tour a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.

Chipping in to get to net zero

Al Halvorsen, senior director of sustainability for PepsiCo/Frito Lay, oversees 350 manufacturing sites around the world, including the company’s plant in Casa Grande, Arizona. The plant’s rebirth, he says, was born out of a technology scan of all the PepsiCo/Frito Lay plants around the world. From that analysis came the idea to combine a range of technologies into one plant. The goal? Zero impact with respect to waste, natural gas, electricity and water.

Casa Grande is a mid-size plant in the Frito Lay family, churning out 100 million pounds of SunChips, Lays and Doritos per year and serving the snacking needs of seven states. Prior to the retrofit, Casa Grande was, in many respects, ordinary, making it a perfect candidate for the near net-zero makeover.

As Halvorsen explains, more than a decade of continuous improvement in environmental performance yielded combined savings of US$80 million. While this is certainly more than the cost of the Casa Grande retrofit, his team leveraged these results to make the case for a near net-zero living laboratory.

The innovation, clarifies Halvorsen, lies not in the individual technologies, most of which have been around for some time, but rather in their integrated deployment on one site with a goal to drive impact down to zero.

SunChips powered by the sun

A key feature of the Casa Grande technology toolkit is the photovoltaic installation. Some 18,000 panels generate five megawatts of electricity, where two-thirds are part of a Solar Power Purchase Agreement with the local utility and one-third is owned by Frito Lay. As the most visible and climate-appropriate technology in the mix, the array nonetheless requires a significant swath of land to deploy. Pair this with the labyrinth of legalese at both the state and local levels and with the compliance with municipal planning scenarios, which may or may not materialize, and one very quickly comes to appreciate the complexity of even this most intuitive of near net-zero strategies.

The solar array is complemented by a dual-axis tracking system, a single-axis covered parking lot and 10 sterling engine dual-axis tracking systems. Even the company’s fleet of electric trucks is powered by the on-site solar mix.

Wood chips and pecans spur innovation

Perhaps less intuitive, yet no less effective, is the biomass boiler that generates steam to convert potatoes into potato chips. Initially using only ageing wooden pallets, crushed and then burned, Casa Grande has begun sourcing pecan shells from a nearby plantation to increase capacity. Partnerships like this one—and others whereby damaged product is sold to nearby farmers as cattle feed (yes, cows eat SunChips too!)—speaks to the collaborative and often local nature of innovation.

And it’s working. With a capacity of 60,000 pounds per hour, Casa Grande generates all of the steam it needs, dramatically reducing its natural gas consumption.

How waste strategies can work together

Through a rich combination of extensive reuse, manufacturing efficiency and creative partnerships, Casa Grande has been sending zero waste to landfill for the past two years. Some of the strategies are straightforward (ample recycling bins on site), others are more involved (shipping boxes are reused several times before finally being recycled) and still others are outright creative (food waste becomes cattle feed and unused packaging gets recycled into new processes, like park benches). Here again, it’s all of the moving pieces working together that make for an effective strategy.

Reducing water waste

Given its location in the dry southwestern United States, Casa Grande’s approach to water is no less innovative. A recovery and reuse system combines a membrane bioreactor supplied by GE-Zenon and low-pressure reverse osmosis to recycle 75% of the 1 million litres of water used each day. The recycled process water meets US Environmental Protection Agency primary and secondary drinking water standards, and the 25% that doesn’t get recycled returns to the municipal treatment facility.

An authentic sustainability journey

Clearly, Casa Grande stands apart as an example of a near net-zero facility on a real world, industrial scale. It is an exciting picture of the art of possibility. But does it make economic sense? How replicable is Casa Grande in other parts of the US or the world?

Building on the authentic sustainability trajectory, from eco-efficiency to near net zero, what would it take to get to net positive in energy, waste or water? Having seen this project come to life from the beginning, is Halvorsen bullish on the prospects of a business case for regenerative design either in Casa Grande or elsewhere in the PepsiCo family?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Casa Grande series, where I will tackle these and other “what next” scenarios.

Anthony Watanabe

A MaRS client, Anthony M. Watanabe, Ph.D., is an award-winning entrepreneur, advisor and investor helping organizations innovate through sustainability. From July 2013 through July 2014, he is embarking on a journey around the world to research and develop the business case for regenerative design. See more…