Nestlé takes the step from milk to water in Qingdao

To preserve water resources in the province of Shandong, where its Qingdao plant is located, Nestlé is rolling out its international “Zero water” program with Veolia’s support.
Published in the dossier of February 2019


The city of Qingdao is located in the province of Shandong in North-East China. With its five million inhabitants, the city has expanded rapidly over the past few years. As a direct consequence, the gap between water supply and demand has widened considerably in this region where water is scarce. To such an extent that it is limiting the city’s economic, social and sustainable development, as well as its growth.


The international “Zero water” program, which has been running for several years at Nestlé, has thus been implemented at the Qingdao plant. Following on from Lagos de Moreno1 in Mexico and Mossel Bay in South Africa2, this is Nestlé’s third powdered milk and dairy product production site to employ a Veolia solution with a view to achieving “zero water.” In each instance, the idea is the same: in regions under high water stress, instead of extracting water from an external source, the water evaporated from milk during the manufacturing process is recovered. This “cow water” is then recycled and reinjected into the plant’s operating processes (cooling circuits, cleaning, feeding the industrial process). This innovative approach supplements the more conventional step of recovering and treating the process water.


Nestlé’s “Zero Water” program: a three-step method

For Nestlé, the key to saving natural resources first of all lies in innovation and how it is implemented. A three-step approach:

  • Initially identifying how to improve the existing production processes to reduce water consumption
  • Studying all the possibilities for reusing the water already used
  • Deploying innovative solutions to extract water from raw materials and recycle it.

By applying these principles, Nestlé has been able to reduce its water consumption by a quarter over the past decade. The Swiss group is currently conducting 516 water-saving projects in its factories, saving 3.7 million m3 of water per year, i.e. the equivalent of 1,500 Olympic swimming pools.

Recycling “cow water”

“Milk consists of 87% ‘water’: when it is dehydrated to produce powdered milk, this generates enormous volumes of water… but it’s water that requires special treatment,” highlights Peter Stokes, Global Account Executive at Veolia Water Technologies.

Veolia therefore initially looked to optimize the wastewater treatment to obtain a sufficiently high quality to be subsequently reinjected into the plant’s facilities rather than discharged into the sewers.

“We then developed specific technologies to recover and treat the huge volume of ‘cow water,’” continues Peter Stokes, “to reinject it into the closed water circuit as well. The aim is to remove not only mineral residues from this water, but also biological components and bacteria, which cause putrid odors in the downstream network.”

The plant ultimately recovers and recycles 16,500 metric tons of water per month (the equivalent of six Olympic swimming pools), which avoids extracting an average of 500,000 liters of water per day and limits wastewater emissions into the environment.

Moreover, “under certain production circumstances and weather conditions, our plants can even be water positive, i.e. produce more water than they consume!” states Peter Stokes. “For example, this was the case for the Nestlé plant in Mexico, which was able to sell its surplus recycled water to a neighboring factory last year…”

A rising demand for dairy products…

In Eastern China on the banks of the Yellow Sea, the factory lies at the heart of the Qingdao district, which covers an area of over 10,000 km2. Its primarily urban population now numbers more than eight million inhabitants (five million in the city of Qingdao alone) and its economic growth continues apace (almost 10% per year over the past decade). National demand for dairy products and infant formulas is also predicted to rise:

“China’s annual consumption of dairy products has increased fourfold since 1990, reaching 31 liters per capita per year. Although this is still three times less than the global average, the trend will continue,” states Jean-Marc Chaumet from the (French) livestock institute Idele3.

However, “after agriculture, industry is the biggest consumer of water, using almost 22% compared to 8% for households,” Nestlé reminds us4. The environmental issue at stake is therefore crucial for the manufacturer, which is determined to keep step with this evolution by developing its production while limiting the pressure on water resources in the region.

Water resources and climate change

For several years, the Chinese public authorities have also been striving to reduce the pressure on water resources in this highly industrialized region. This has taken the form of two major initiatives: the China Europe Water Platform, devised in partnership with the European Union in 2012, aims to put in place national water governance and technological know-how sharing; while the “Qingdao Water Resources and Wetland Protection Project” is a local program designed to more closely control water pollution and protect the resource. The latter falls more widely within the Qingdao authorities’ desire to limit the effects of climate change: as a member of the network of the world’s megacities “C40 Cities,” it is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 million metric tons by 2020. This is therefore in line with the “Zero water” program from Nestlé, which is gradually rolling out its environmental initiative in its factories worldwide… especially China.

Qingdao Nestlé Co., Ltd., in figures

1994 : creation of the Qingdao plant
2017 : launch of the “zero water” program
528 employees (2017 figures)
16 500 m3 of water recovered and recycled each month
500 000 liters of water per day that is no longer taken from the environment.


1 “Nestlé draws water from its milk” Nestlé plant in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico.
2 « “Food and beverage giant Nestlé selects Veolia to design and build its new wastewater treatment plant in Mossel Bay, South Africa.” source »
3 La France agricole, Carole Hiet, April 2017.
4 « “Zero water,” Nestlé. », Nestlé.