Making operations more sustainable in a UK sugar refinery

29th February 2024

Written by Nadia Khan, Membership and Markets Coordinator

The Bonsucro team visited Tate and Lyle Sugars’ Thames Refinery at the end of January, to see first-hand how one of our members is making its operations and supply chains more sustainable, and learn more about the impact of trade policy on the UK sugar sector.

The trip formed part of Bonsucro’s annual all-team meeting, where our team gathered in London to plan our year ahead, and discuss important topics such as our roadmaps on human rights and climate action. Visiting the refinery was an opportunity for our international staff to connect more personally with one of our UK members, and for the whole team to learn about the operations of a refinery. Along with many of my colleagues, this was the first time I had seen how raw cane sugar is turned into the end products we find on our supermarket shelves.

During the tour, we learnt more about the sugar’s journey from ship to package; while we were there, we saw raw sugar from South Africa being unloaded at the dock. The scale of Tate and Lyle Sugars’ warehouse at the Thames Refinery was impressive- it can store up to 65,000 tonnes of raw sugar at any one time, an enormous amount, enough to cover the total consumption of sugar in the UK for a week.

Making sugar more sustainable

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a key focus of Tate and Lyle Sugars’ sustainability strategy. Sugar manufacturing is an energy intensive process and Tate and Lyle Sugars is investing in improving its operational efficiency and in several renewable energy projects. It has installed new sugar refining equipment which use less energy, thereby reducing carbon emissions. It is also investigating new technologies such as carbon capture and utilization.

I believe it is also vital for refineries such as Tate and Lyle Sugars to work closely with their suppliers, and play their part in encouraging the adoption of regenerative and sustainable farming practices to help the sector achieve net-zero. I am pleased that Tate and Lyle Sugars has set out an ambition to ensure its raw sugar is 100% sustainably sourced, with suppliers respecting the environment and preventing deforestation.

Another area that Tate and Lyle Sugars are looking at making more sustainable is the transport of raw sugar from where it is produced to the refinery door. The team at Tate and Lyle Sugars explained how it has signed up to an international convention to ensure the protection of human rights and decent working conditions on cargo ships, and has committed to only charter boats accredited by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. By chartering its own vessels, Tate and Lyle Sugars is also able to schedule deliveries better, making the process of unloading sugar more efficient.

Trade agreements and policy affect procurement strategies

During the tour, we also learnt about how trade policy affects the UK sugar sector. Raw sugar imports into the UK for refining face tariffs of £280 per tonne – often over 100% of the price paid – unless the sugar comes from a country covered by a free trade agreement (FTA) or one of the Least Developed Countries and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. This means there is a restricted number of countries that Tate and Lyle Sugars can source from, which effectively limits the amount of certified materials available to refineries like Tate and Lyle Sugars.

This situation has recently eased somewhat with the new FTA signed between Australia and the UK and the introduction of the Autonomous Trade Quota.  In 2021, the British government introduced the Autonomous Trade Quota to allow the UK sugar industry to import 260,000 tonnes of raw cane sugar from other countries, tariff-free. This paved the way for  Tate and Lyle Sugars to enter into a ten-year supply agreement with Raizen, one of Brazil’s biggest sugar producers and a leader in sustainability – with over 25 of its plants Bonsucro-certified.

The different tariffs and quotas between countries around the world makes sugar trading complex. Tate and Lyle Sugars is open about wanting to source greater volumes of Bonsucro-certified material as part of their commitment to sustainable agriculture; they regularly speak to our international programmes team to understand where certified raw sugar might be available, and how they can support producers to become certified.

Sustainability relies on strong relationships

Tate and Lyle Sugars, like all big companies, needs to boost its sustainability performance. It is making changes directly to its own operations, while also working with its suppliers to address sustainability challenges in sugarcane production. We’re pleased to see that Bonsucro is a key part of Tate and Lyle Sugars’ vision of sustainable sourcing.

The trade challenges faced by Tate and Lyle Sugars are faced by many of our members around the world regardless of country or market. But by investing in dialogue with governments on the importance of supporting sustainable trade, building long-term trade relationships, expanding production areas under certification and improving access to certified materials, we can create a more sustainable sugarcane sector where everyone, from producer to buyer, wins.

If you would like to get in touch with the team, you can email us at