“The nature of sugar production is such, that its more than just a simple crop, it’s part of the fabric of the societies in which its grown.”
Sugar is one of those everyday products that it is very easy not too think too much about. Yet many might be surprised that it’s not just used to sweeten tea or make cakes extra delicious, it has a whole host of other uses, from healthcare and pharmaceuticals through to bio-based plastics and livestock feed. But from historical working practices to modern day sugar taxes the industry hasn’t always had the best of reputations. However, all industries are now seeing doing good as good business and AB Sugar, one of the largest global producers of sugars is no different, and has put a circular economy approach at the heart of their business.
Today our editor Luke Upton, speaks exclusively to Katharine Teague, Head of Advocacy and Sustainability at AB Sugar , who was recently named Sustainability Executive of the Year at the Business Green Leaders Awards 2019 about their new circular approach to an industry centuries old.
LU: Thanks for the time today, for our readers who might not be familiar with AB Sugar, could you give us an introduction into the business?
KT: No problem. Of course! AB Sugar is a group of businesses that operate across 24 plants in 10 countries, that makes and sells sugar and sugar-related products to people and diverse industries around the world. As well as our core products made from sugar beet and sugar cane, that you’ll be familiar with, we also make co-products, anything one or two ‘steps’ away from the sugar-making process. These co-products are as varied as furfural (a renewable chemical), animal feed and even renewable energy. We fully embrace the circular economy approach, and work hard to make the most out of every stick of cane and root of beet!
LU: Great, so tell us about the role of Head of Advocacy and what has led you to it.
KT: I started my career in media, with Dennis Publishing and Reed, and worked for the Excel event venue before changing focus and spending five years at international trade and development charity Christian Aid. I joined AB Sugar in the Summer of 2014 to drive the direction and execution of their sustainability commitments. It’s a fantastic role, AB is always looking for the next challenge, so there’s always plenty going on!
At the heart of my work is the ‘Global Mind, Local Champions’ approach which focuses on our three pillars of economic, social and environmental good and our commitment to becoming the world’s most sustainable sugar business. I also lead our engagement with our key stakeholders such as NGOs, government and investors. Last year we published our first group-wide annual sustainability report – publicly outlining our commitments that includes reducing our end-to-end supply chain water and CO2 footprints by 30% and ensuring all our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, biodegradable or compostable.
LU: Those are some bold targets, you’ve already given us an insights into the breadth of the company. In such a large organisation, how do you make sure everyone is moving in the same direction?
KT: The nature of sugar production is such, that its more than just a simple crop, its part of the fabric of the societies in which its grown. We have a huge number of employees, around 32,000, so getting genuine buy-in from our stuff is crucial. The best way to help secure this is to be clear in your goals, and why they have been set. But also for these goals to be ambitious and the benefit of achieving them to be clear to all.
LU: You mentioned earlier your co-products, these might surprise some of our readers who think mainly of sugar as a food ingredient, can you tell us more about some of these please?
KT: Yes, we have some really exciting products and they can be found across three main areas.
To give you some examples, first in the energy sector, here in the UK, in Bury St Edmunds, we use an Anaerobic Digester to turn over 97,500 tonnes of beet pulp per year into enough energy to power over 18,000 homes. We actually sell energy back to the National Grid!
Then there’s our agriculture, horticulture and animal feed co-products. We are particularly proud of Azucarera, our business in Spain, which recycles 99% of waste from the sugar process and produces around 400,000 tonnes per year of animal feed and agricultural fertiliser.
Another one of our offerings is LimeX, the UK’s leading agricultural liming product for the correction of soil pH which is a co-product of our sugar beet manufacturing – derived from high-purity limestone that is used to clarify and filter ‘raw juice’ – the liquid sugar that is produced when sliced sugar beet are diffused with hot water.
And finally, there’s our speciality products which include betaine (a high value animal feed supplement), furfural (a renewable chemical), bagasse for making paper and potable alcohol for the beverage industry.
All the team take pride in looking at our processes and working out more we can get from them. And there’s more to come, we have new products in the pipeline and are always looking to add more value to the business.
LU: Thanks, but such progress is never easy, tells us about some of the challenges?
KT: Of course, there are challenges and it is always hard to get good ideas to a command scale. We are creating a modern sugar industry, so this does require changes to existing ways of working. And the market doesn’t normally move as quickly as we do. But as we commit more to our sustainable goals, and we bring more partners and technologies onboard, we can help quicken the pace!
LU: So, what’s at the top of the inbox right now?
KT: Well, there’s always plenty going on! But our 2030 goals are a constant focus. Across all of our businesses, we are deeply engaged with our growers and others across our supply chain to work together to ensure a truly circular approach to producing sugar and our co-products. But there is so much more; we are working with smallholder farmers in Africa and China to improve their resilience to the impacts of climate change , are introducing drip irrigation systems in high water risk areas to enhance beet crop growth whilst reducing energy and water consumption and recycling water that has been used within our factories and returning it to the source.
LU: And finally, as we ask all our interviewees, what’s your favourite bio-based or sustainable product?
KT: There’s lots out there! But as a I drive a hybrid car, I have to say bio-ethanol for transport use. It’s not something that we’ve fully cracked here in the UK. But if you look at something like E10, which is produced from the fermentation of plants including, of course, sugar cane, and actually absorbs carbon dioxide, it has huge potential so looking forward to it becoming far more widely used.
LU: Thanks very much for the time, we look forward to following your circular progress and more stories of sustainability at AB Sugar.
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