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There are plenty of hot startups with a new technology that can accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Yet some of the best examples don't rely on new tech, but instead on the gradual evolution of processes and a precise understanding of energy and resource flows. Continual improvement, collaboration and systems thinking are the name of the game. At British Sugar’s Factory in Norfolk, these are very much on display.
Wissington is a beet sugar plant established in 1925, as part of British Sugar. The plant supplies 420,000 tonnes of sugar a year in various formats, extracting it from the sugar beet grown around the East of England. However, for those who have visited, describing Wissington simply as a 'sugar factory' immediately feels like something of a misnomer. This is a story of diversification.
3.5 million tonnes of raw material enter Wissington each year, and just 100 tonnes leave for landfill - mainly canteen waste
The team at Wissington have continually evaluated their operation to valorise previously wasted energy and material flows. The result is a factory that doesn't just produce sugar, but 12 different saleable products, from valuable chemicals to food for animals and humans. Some of the co-products are more obvious than others, and the approach shows an open-mindedness to new ideas. This practice is in place at most of British Sugar's plants, but is most advanced at Wissington. Here, the economies of scale are most pronounced, and offer the best example of how this type of expansion can improve the resilience of the business. What's more, previous Factory Manager Paul Hitchcock explains that this type of thinking is needed to stay competitive: "as a business we don’t necessarily lead innovation but continually challenge our commercial model, you cannot control where commodity prices are going, so being two or three steps in front enables more choices."
Every stage of the process has been scrutinised in this way. When the 3 million tonnes of beet are delivered each year, it comes into the Wissington plant in need of a good clean. The soil and stone removed during this process isn't seen as a waste problem, but is in fact sold at a volume of 150,000 tonnes a year, and a third of this is sold under the Topsoil brand - part of British sugar. In addition, the 5,000 tonnes of stones that come out of the process are sold as aggregate. With landfill costs at around £70-80 per ton, this makes clear business sense.
After washing, slicing and diffusing , the sugar beet goes through a purification process, which uses lime and CO2 to remove the non-sugars (impurities). Again, the way in which this is set up shows how Wissington is understood and managed as a network of resource flows, rather than a linear throughput model. The lime used to purify the sugar is turned into LimeX, another saleable product commonly used by growers to correct soil acidification, as well as on brownfield sites and in the production of mushroom casing. The product meets Soil Association requirements for organic farming, restoring nutrients to the soil. This endeavour makes British Sugar the leading supplier of liming products to UK agriculture, displacing quarried limestone and chalk.
Wissington is also home to the UK's first bioethanol fuel plant, where British Sugar - reacting to the supply and demand of their core product - use some of the extracted beet sugar syrup to produce around 55,000 tonnes of renewable fuel each year. EU legislation on renewable energy and fuel quality has mandated that member states mix a certain amount of renewable fuel into petrol and diesel, however bioethanol has had some bad press in the past, and readers may be familiar with the 'food vs fuel' debate. This part of the British Sugar operation illustrates the difference between a holistic, systems view and a linear mindset. Rather than simply substituting one extractive process for another; understanding and vauing resource flows in a broader context makes a regenerative economy a real possibility. Smart chemistry has been employed elsewhere at Wissington, through the extraction of biochemical feedstock. We hear a lot about the potential of anaerobic digestion, but fewer businesses are exploring which valuable chemicals can be obtained from organic materials prior to the digestion process. At British Sugar for instance, betaine - a chemical derived from sugar beet and used in fish food - is another profitable revenue stream.
Topsoil, aggregate, lime, bioethanol and betaine are all useful co-products, and are quite specific to the beet sugar process. But one output that Wissington shares with most manufacturing processes worldwide is CO2. Through an innovative approach and unlikely partnerships, British Sugar has enabled surplus carbon dioxide at the plant to be used as a resource put to productive use.
During a tour of the plant, Paul Hitchcock points to a dormant chimney stretching above one of the units. "When the ethanol plant was built, we obviously had an EA permit allowing us to release CO2 (a result of the natural fermentation process leading to the creation of ethanol) into the atmosphere. Once the bio-ethanol plant was fully operational we looked closer at our factory diagram, and we noticed this arrow leaving the factory, producing CO2 that had real value. If something's being 'produced', could it be a product? So we questioned the value of of that gas stream, and realised there could be a buyer for this food-grade CO2". That buyer was Air Liquide, who use the gas in a variety of applications such as industrial refrigeration. And these partnerships have been essential to the growth at Wissington, as Paul explains how "we're not experts in some of these products, so we find a partner that is. Air Liquide now have a supply of CO2 in the UK, and we help ourselves again make something out of what we used to call waste".
Other uses have been found for these emissions. Being energy intensive, new standalone glasshouses for growing salads are rarely built these days. However, the surplus emissions, heat and plentiful space of Wissington make it an ideal location for tomato production. The 47-acre Cornerways Nursery is one of the top five producers in the UK, and the largest supplier of classic round and speciality salad tomatoes. The relationship between the sugar and tomato operations can even make for a better product, as the CO2 from the (high efficiency Gas Turbine which powers the site) is of higher quality than CO2 derived from other combustion sources. When some people think of co-products, they might think of a fringe operation, making a bit extra on the side, but the tomato plant at Wissington shows just how profitable collaboration of this type can be.
This is an ongoing process for British Sugar. Bioethanol Lead Josh Hoopes explains a new addition to the operation, and yet another product opportunity: "yeast is one of the primary components in making ethanol, and typically that yeast is lost in the production stream. We've introduced a centrifuge that recovers that material and it can be sold as a high-protein animal feed."
The team at Wissington are clearly motivated to develop a diverse business that can run all year round and is resilient from external shocks. One other secret to their success could be the way employees are trained and managed. Each new apprentice works on every aspect of the sugar plant, from running the control room to maintaining machinery. Perhaps the resulting interdisciplinarity is one reason why a systems thinking approach is evident throughout the factory.
"This site becomes an ideal place to optimise our production mix and be used as a flexible asset, when our crop variations go up and down we have another outlet to manage the volume of sugar. This makes the plant more resilient, and can cope with variations in weather, sunshine and rain."
At this point it's worth remembering that Wissington started out as a sugar factory. And it's a good thing there's a 'British Sugar' sign at the entrance, as the diverse range of outputs could make this easy to overlook. This pursuit of diversification and seeking out of new cash flows has led to an elegant industrial symbiosis model. Whilst collaboration has undoubtedly been essential, Wissington feels less like the grand industrial park projects like Kalundborg Symbiosis, and more the outcome of British Sugar's continual evaluation and optimisation of its own business and processes. As far as possible, British Sugar strive to make sure that their factories aren't the end of the road for resources. Imagine if all business had a similar outlook.