Waste not, want not

Waste not, want not

Gavin D. Smith takes a look at the by-products of whisky-making, and where they end up

News | 24 Mar 2003 | Issue 29 | By Gavin Smith

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As whisky consumers, we give a great deal of thought to what goes into our drink, but very little thought to what does not. Yet were it not for effective management of the by-products of distilling, the Scotch whisky industry as we know it today could not survive.Distillers tend to wear their environmental credentials on their sleeves, which is hardly surprising in an era when the public relations mileage in being seen to be green is considerable. And malt distillers are surely justified in boasting about making a product using only malt, water and yeast as raw materials, and about their commitment to recycling by-products where possible and disposing of waste responsibly.Traditionally, whisky distilling was practised on farms in Scotland as a way of converting barley into a more durable and value added product, while spare grain was also fed to the cattle along with draff from distilling.The cattle fertilised the fields where grain was grown, and pot ale was spread on the land as additional fertiliser. Today, ‘good housekeeping’ practices in the distilling industry mean that draff and pot ale continue to have agricultural uses, despite the old farming/whisky-making cycle having been broken by the development of commercial distilling.Pollution control in Britain is commonly perceived as a post-Second World War phenomenon, but as long ago as 1876 the Rivers Pollution Prevention Act was passed, giving local authorities the power to launch proceedings against offenders under the 1867 Public Health (Scotland) Act.So, even during the great Speyside distilling boom of the late 19th century, the River Spey and its renowned salmon stocks enjoyed a degree of protection against excesses of effluent discharge from the ever-growing number of distilleries thronging its catchment area. When waste material from distilling decomposes in a river or sea, it sucks in large amounts of the oxygen that exists in the water, and if this happens in a concentrated area it will have the effect of suffocating aquatic or marine life.One solution to the need for a comparatively pure discharge into Scotland’s rivers was to spray effluent onto farmland, but in some cases effluent disposal posed a real problem for distillers, and even led to the closure of Imperial Distillery at Carron, near the Spey, for three decades from 1925.As early as 1906, a plant was installed at Rothes to evaporate pot ale and produce a concentrated syrup, which was then dried to powder form and sold to farmers as fertiliser.In the years after the Second World War when distilling output began to rise dramatically, a number of innovations were developed to dry draff and to incorporate pot ale into ‘distiller’s dried solubles’ for animal feed.Ultimately, ‘dark grains’ production was pioneered by Hiram Walker in the USA and Canada, and in 1964 the company built Scotland’s first dark grains plant at Dumbarton.As Scotland’s largest distiller, with 27 malt distilleries and two grain plants, Diageo has the largest headache when it comes to dealing with the by-products of whisky-making. Malt distilling director Brian Higgs was asked to explain how they deal with the challenges of by-product recovery and effluent disposal within the confines of today’s extremely stringent legislation.Central to Diageo’s by-product recovery programme is its two dark grains plants at Glenlossie and Dailuaine distilleries on Speyside, and Higgs began by discussing dark grains.“Draff is like Weetabix you’d feed to kids.” he explained. “In the dark grains plant it goes through a press to get as much of the liquid as possible out, then it is dried to the consistency of dry Weetabix.“Pot ale has the water dried off in an evaporating plant and is mixed with syrup until it’s like Marmite in consistency. Finally, the two are mixed together and processed into pellet form as a convenient and durable animal feed.“If we can break even financially on our dark grains plants we are happy – they’ve served their purpose. After all, we need them in order to keep our distilleries open!”Many distilleries continue to sell draff to local farmers, and some Diageo distilleries well away from the Speyside dark grains plants, such as Blair Athol in Perthshire, are equipped with their own ‘evaporators’ to make pot ale syrup for animal feed.According to Higgs, “Spent lees and ‘foul condensate’, which is the effluent from the dark grains plant and really just dirty water, go to a ‘bio plant’, which is essentially a tower filled with what look like golf practice balls.“Bacteria eat the muck out of the water, and the cleaned water is discharged into rivers. The leftover muck – known as sludge – is used by farmers on their land – it’s a cheap fertiliser and is very nutritious and effective”.He noted that when you examine the quantities of raw materials going into a distillery and the amount of whisky made using them, the total of effluent at the end is actually very small.In a hypothetical, average-sized Diageo distillery producing around two million litres of alcohol per year, there would be a weekly input of 100 tonnes of malt, 12,000 tonnes of cooling water, 815 tonnes of process water and two tonnes of yeast. Ultimately, just 1,221 tonnes of effluent per week would be left, along with 27 tonnes of sludge, while 38 tonnes of dark grains could be created.Diageo’s communications manager, Peter Smith, notes: “we are notoriously canny as an industry,” and observes that disposal methods differ depending on the location of distilleries. On Islay, pot ale was always piped into the sea by way of a comparatively short outfall pipe at each individual plant – a practice common to all coastal distilleries.However, European directives have had a serious impact on how distilleries dispose of effluent, and the most significant piece of legislation with which distillers now have to comply is the EC’s Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.“Such directives were really meant to clean heavy metals out of the Rhine and the Danube and all sorts of things out of the Mediterranean, but they catch out Scotland too,” says Peter Smith.“Yet all we are putting back into the sea or rivers is water, cereal and yeast residues. Remember, this is a very green industry. We trade on making a pure, clear product and having pure, clear rivers, but debate comes with pan-European, catch-all directives. We do have to make sure that we don’t get caught by unnecessarily bureaucratic legislation which won’t actually do anything to help the environment, and the Scotch Whisky Association and the Malt Distillers Association will lobby Brussels on behalf of Scottish distillers when necessary.”Smith cites the case of Islay as an example of the environmental ambiguities that can arise. There, the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive decreed that existing arrangements for pot ale disposal were no longer acceptable.Ultimately, Bowmore and Bruichladdich distilleries joined Diageo in a venture to create one new long outfall pipe at Caol Ila Distillery, and waste from Jura Distillery is also transported on the ferry to Islay for disposal at Caol Ila.The possibility of building a dark grains plant on Islay was examined, but deemed an unattractive option. Regular supplies of heavy fuel oil would have to be shipped over, and there would be many lorry journeys between distilleries and the processing facility. Additionally, as there would not be a large enough market for the grains on Islay, they would have to be transported by lorry and ferry back to the mainland for sale.One negative environmental aspect of the new arrangements, however, is the extra road tankers now in use on Islay, and Diageo’s environmental responsibility also comes at a financial cost.The pipeline, which opened in January 2001, cost £2 million, and Diageo currently spends £140,000 per year just to run the lorries that make the journey between Lagavulin and the new Caol Ila outfall.“Each new directive has a major cost implication for the industry as a whole,” comments Brian Higgs.Diageo has also invested £5 million in purchasing an existing long sea outfall at Burghead on the Moray Firth coast, and laid a 14km-long pipeline across Speyside. This takes pot ale from a number of the company’s distilleries and disposes of it far out to sea.“The Trans-Moray pipeline was built in collaboration with the local water authority, and environmentally it was a very good project,” says Higgs.The latest piece of EC legislation which could have a major impact on Scotch whisky distilling is the Water Framework Directive, which is currently before the Scottish Parliament.This is concerned with abstraction control and potential charges, and, as the Scotch Whisky Association’s Campbell Evans remarks, “it was designed more for the dry plains of central Spain than a country like Scotland with a comparatively high level of rainfall. “The end result should be a common sense Scottish solution to a European directive,” he says, “and we will argue that it’s not a money-making opportunity for regulatory authorities. To a very large extent, what distillers are doing anyway is effectively ‘borrowing’ water for cooling purposes and then putting it back.”The industry is watching and waiting to see whether parliament acts with common sense …
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