Sustainability / Automation / Innovation / Processing

Reuse's Dollars and Sense

April 1, 2011
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For food and beverage companies focused on water recycling and landfill reduction, the effort yields solid financial returns.



Recovery of steam injected into vertical retorts at the start of a batch can pay big financial dividends, provided recovery systems don’t pose a risk to the process. Source: Allpax Products.

When manufacturers think about water and trash, it usually is because there’s a problem. Otherwise, they are an inexpensive resource and an unavoidable byproduct, neither carrying more than nominal costs.

In reality, the costs can be substantial, particularly for manufacturers contending with sanitary requirements. That’s why virtually every major food and beverage company has set aggressive targets to reduce water use and solid waste generation. Pragmatism, not altruism, drives those programs: The costs are real, and excessive waste streams are evidence of an inefficient process. Lean manufacturing demands action.

Action can mean altering processes, which is hard, and individuals’ attitudes, which is harder. “Positive reinforcement” is an ongoing challenge at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (SNBC), allows Cheri Chastain, sustainability coordinator at the Chico, CA brewery, though making water and waste key performance indicators means she is not alone in the struggle. “Our waste diversion rate is affecting managers’ bonuses, so it behooves them to keep people focused,” she says.

Zero landfill is a goal of an increasing number of companies, particularly in states such as California, where tipping fees provide a powerful incentive to divert 90 percent or more of solid waste. Recycling and reusing materials isn’t simply cost avoidance, however. Sales of cardboard, scrap metal and other materials generated $850,000 in income last year at SNBC, making waste management a profit center. Keeping more than 40,000 tons out of landfills saved almost $5 million.

SNBC maintains a friendly rivalry with Chico’s Smucker Quality Beverages Inc. SNBC and Smucker are perennial winners of WRAP (Waste Reduction Awards Program), an honor bestowed by California’s Department of Recycling & Recovery. The Smucker program is detailed in a case history posted on the department’s website. In it, Production Manager Bob Wagner emphasizes the critical importance of staff buy-in.

“In order to have a good program,” Wagner notes, “it needed to be embedded into employees. We did a big push [in 2005] to get workers to put the recyclables into the right containers, not in the trash. Procedures are the key. And it worked. We really got the recycling rate up.”

That year, the plant generated revenues of $40,665 from the sale of diverted materials, enough to justify the hiring of a waste management coordinator. A waste audit was the first order of business. Trash compactors were emptied onto a stretch of asphalt and the contents assessed for their potential value. For a period, the coordinator was the only person permitted to put trash into the compactor. If he found recyclables mixed in, the entire lot was returned for separation to the department that generated it.

Skid-mounted reverse osmosis systems deliver reliable and increasingly cost-effective technology for filtering traditional waste streams and returning potable water. Source: GE Water & Process Technologies.

Cardboard and glass are Smucker’s big revenue generators, though waste management has opened the door to barter arrangements and community goodwill. A dairy farmer picks up 2,700 tons of fruit pulp annually to use as animal feed and, in return, hauls away the plant’s compost. A honey farmer pays $3 for empty 55-gallon drums, the same as a metal recycler would pay but an effective way to help a local business while finding a higher use. “You’ve got to think outside the box,” maintains Wagner.

Recycling must be approached as a moneymaking proposition, he adds; indeed, economics underlies most corporate sustainability programs. An exception is SNBC, where owner Ken Grossman has made environmental stewardship a core value since the brewery’s inception. When evaluating potential recipients of segregated materials, SNBC considers more than the highest bid. For example, plastic could be sent to an incinerator with a co-gen system, but that would amount to “condoning bad behavior,” says Chastain. Similarly, most recycled plastic and paper is put on ships bound to China, where processors break them down and sell them as new stock to firms in the US and elsewhere. SNBC prefers to sell bulk paper to a San Francisco Bay mill, where the paper is shredded and fabricated into new beer cartons for the brewery’s finished goods. “I like that closed loop,” she says.

In September, the brewery closed the loop on food waste generated by its on-site restaurant when it became the first US company to install a PLC-driven, in-vessel composting system from New Zealand’s HotRot Exports Ltd. A tine-bearing shaft rotates intermittently in the system’s chambers, keeping the oxygen and air levels in a steady state, “and there’s no odor,” Chastain reports. The U-shaped composter is 36 ft. long and can process up to 5,000 lbs. of organic waste a day. After 12-14 days, the nutrient-rich compost is spread on nine acres of hop plants adjacent to the brewery. Those hops are used in some of SNBC’s specialty beers.

Shearer’s Foods in Brewster, OH is a more recent convert to zero-landfill efforts, setting a November 2009 goal to reduce landfilled waste to less than 1 percent. “In most cases, our recycle streams turn into revenue,” says Scott Weyandt, director of sustainability & compliance. Most waste streams are sorted into separate bins prior to pickup, resulting in no additional costs. The snack food maker’s Massillon, OH plant recycled 98.2 percent of its solid waste in 2010.

Corn and potato waste from production long has been dewatered and sold as animal feed, but Shearer’s sustainability focus has expanded to include other waste streams. Finished goods that may have been landfilled in the past now go to an agent who separates the food from its packaging, then uses the package film “as well as paper plates and other lunch-room waste as a combustible fuel” to fire processing equipment, according to Weyandt. Higher-value uses are being assessed, including a technology that grinds cardboard and potato skins to produce cattle feed.

Sweat equity is the only investment required for most recycling, and a dollop of creativity can yield money-saving reuse possibilities. Bubble wrap and shipping popcorn from incoming shipments to SNBC are routed to the brewery’s own shipping department for reuse. Damaged pallets are sent to a local firm that rebuilds them and gives the brewery a credit toward its next purchase. The boxes in which bottle crowns arrive are sent to a tee-shirt supplier that uses them when filling the next SNBC order.

Once a company understands the value of its waste streams and where the reuse market exists, “it’s pretty much hands off,” suggests Chastain.

Bacteria that devour organic loads in wastewater are bred at the rate of 30 trillion microbes every 24 hours in this compact incubator. Source: Ecobionics.

Liquid gold

Reuse of water, particularly water that has been heated and treated, has significant economic advantages, not the least of which is reduction in the amount of wastewater discharged into municipal systems. And in areas beset by shortages, water’s cost no longer is inconsequential: During the 2007 drought in Georgia, some poultry processors were forced to bring in tankers of water to continue production.

Some plant expansions are on hold pending the owners’ demonstration that water reuse and recycling efforts will result in no net increase in consumption, according to Tony Stanich, head of global food & beverage marketing at Naperville, IL-based Nalco Co. Even when production is flat, the economics of reuse are much more attractive today than in years past, making projects easier to cost-justify. Audits make it clear that, even if the tap price is only $3 per 1,000 gallons, “the cost can be as much as $15 if it goes through ion exchange, R/O, into a boiler for conversion to steam” and other value-added steps, Stanich says.

Cooling tower systems are a case in point. The more cycles with a given volume of water, the lower the operating cost. That requires precise metering of chemicals to prevent scaling, corrosion and bio-fouling. Many plants lack the resources and expertise to optimize the number of cycles. More than 20 years ago, Nalco isolated a molecule that fluoresces as a precursor sign of scaling problems, but the technology was not widely used. Now, the firm imbeds the molecule in a polymer that “reacts with the scale-forming components” in the water. It is embedded in a monitoring system called 3D Trasar that also gauges the levels of bioactivity and corrosive elements in cooling tower water, then meters out a precise amount of chemicals to keep levels in check. To further simplify the technology, web-based monitoring of performance is possible, an option that about half of the firm’s 8,000 food and beverage installations use.

Anti-scaling and fouling chemistry also is part of the technical arsenal applied by GE Water & Process Technologies, though the Trevose, PA division applies its Argo Analyzer to fouling reductions in membrane systems. The company has aggressively expanded its water filtration expertise in recent years, including the creation last year of a center of excellence for the manufacture of R/O, nanofiltration and ultrafiltration spiral-wound membranes. The Minnetonka, MN center focuses on reducing manufacturing costs and improving membrane performance. It also hosts GE’s dairy filtration development, which has helped cheese processors attain water net zero by recycling condensate of whey (COW) water for CIP and other applications.

Large firms with publicly stated goals for water-use reduction are receptive to considering water technologies with weak ROIs, suggests John Burns, GE Water’s global food & beverage director, but lowering the capital and operating costs for those systems remains a focus. “It doesn’t pay to be green,” says Burns, “if there isn’t green in it.”

Rotating spray balls can cut water use in CIP systems 30 to 50 percent, suggests Alfa Laval Inc.’s Michael O’Grady, but companies are reluctant to switch from the tried and true, usually sticking with static spray balls. The Kenosha, WI, supplier recently installed two rotating jet cleaning devices to a pot-pie filling system, slashing water consumption and helping the company reduce CIP cycle times to 18 minutes from 47 minutes. Post-cleaning swab tests also showed improvement, says O’Grady.

In 2003, Alfa Laval acquired the parent company of Gunclean Toftejorg, specialists in marine cleaning using advanced tank-cleaning technology. Alfa Laval began adapting the superior system for dairy applications, winning 3A approval for rotating spray heads a few years ago, according to O’Grady, market unit manager-tank equipment. “It’s a relatively low investment with a relatively big return.”

Condensate yields water and heat, both of which are attractive targets for recovery. A project undertaken by Allpax Products recently led to a water-audit program that underpins recovery-project cost estimates. One audit involving vertical retorts using saturated steam helped justify a system that reuses steam injected into retorts at the beginning of each batch. Assuming 20 batches a day and a five-minute steam cycle, the system would capture 10,000 lbs. of steam from each retort, according to Greg Jacob, general manager of the Covington, LA retort manufacturer.

Most retorts placed into service in the last 20 years are horizontal units utilizing overpressure, but tens of thousands of vertical saturated steam units continue to process canned goods. Steam at 200°F typically is vented after evacuating the air at the start of each batch. Flash tanks to condense the steam “are very common,” says Jacob, but turning it into a useful utility without creating backpressure on the vent line is an engineering challenge. Allpax overcame it for one shelf-stable food processor by developing engineering calculations that pointed to a solid return. “It’s great to be sustainable, but the bottom line is what people look at first,” Jacob notes.

A PLC-driven composter turns food scraps and other solid waste into rich fertilizer for Sierra nevada’s hop field in about two weeks, further reducing landfill costs. Source: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Lay of the land

Long before water conservation was fashionable, processors in water-challenged areas were actively seeking reuse and recycling opportunities. Deep drilling to the aquifer is necessary to sustain life and agriculture in southern New Mexico, and Border Foods Inc. instituted process changes decades ago, notably with a recycling system involving water used to carry away peels from green chili peppers and jalapeño peppers in 1992 and reusing water used to cool peppers in 1994, effecting water savings of 27 percent per pound of product. But utility management is a continuous improvement challenge, and backsliding occurred by the time Randy Clark arrived three years ago. During peak periods, up to 1 million gallons of water flowed through the facility; last year, it was hovering around 600,000.

A founder of carrot processor Golden Valley Produce in 1996, Clark reinstituted waste-avoidance efforts when he joined Deming, NM-based Border as president and CEO. “We’ve reduced our water usage inside the plant,” says Clark, and he is tapping the same engineers he relied on in Kern County, CA to realize additional efficiencies. Work was recently completed on a two-mile long pipeline that transports wastewater to a pond that serves as the irrigation source for grasslands the company cultivates. The grass is sold as bovine feed. Remarkably, no pumps or electrical devices are associated with the gravity-powered system.

“The engineers I’m dealing with have a wealth of knowledge and ideas,” says Clark. “They know how to screen the waste, the slope you need and how to play with flow so you can get the water out of the pit without power.” As a self-proclaimed steward of the land, he’s proud the system draws zero electricity; as a businessman, he’s pleased with the investment’s payback.

Water conservation and reuse “is an ongoing effort” at SNBC, Chastain reports. “We’re always looking at removing large buffer tanks, changing schedules and looking for ways to recover chemicals in CIP water so it can be reused in another area.” For a marginal cost, a system that routes rinse water from a bottle washer to cool the unit’s vacuum pumps recently was installed.

Finding new uses for old materials is her passion, however. SNBC generates about 1 million kWh a year from fuel cells and an array of more than 10,000 solar panels. Those high-profile projects helped SNBC claim ’s inaugural Sustainable Plant of the Year award (see September 2009 issue). “Nobody wants to talk about trash,” she laments. “It’s not one of the big sexies.” But recycling and reuse can deliver big savings, as well as local bragging rights. In 2010, the brewery diverted 99.5 percent of solid waste. At Smucker, the rate was 99.27 percent.

Generally, people want to do the right thing, though green initiatives such as water reuse and landfill reduction can bog down in semantics. The head of one firm that has invested millions on energy recovery and water reduction rejects the suggestion he is an environmentalist, dismissing environmentalists as “liberal, tree-hugging extremists.” (Take that, Teddy Roosevelt.) Similarly, another food executive ran from the term, saying, “I’m not weird that way.” And Donnie Smith, CEO of Tyson Foods Inc., told attendees at a sustainability summit held at the 2011 International Poultry Exposition, “We’re not going to let environmentalists steal the word ‘sustainability.’” While acknowledging the value of sustainability efforts, Smith emphasized the impact on public perceptions, saying, “The person who steps up to the podium first shapes the discussion.”

How reuse and recycling came to be politically charged and socially controversial practices is unclear. What is clear is that efficient use of resources is consistent with efficient operations, and removal of inefficiencies has significant economic impact. It doesn’t matter if food professionals regard themselves as stewards of the earth or flinty-eyed businesspeople. The key point is that water reuse practices and waste-control programs have a direct impact on the financial viability of organizations.

For more information:
Michael O’Grady, Greg Jacob, Glenn Cramer,
John Burns, Tony Stanich

Bugs-in-a-box lower BOD levels

Wastewater surcharges are an issue for many food companies, particularly when sugars and fat from the production process drive up the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) levels in the water. Pretreatment systems might include a dissolved air flotation (DAF) tank or screening to remove solids and grease, but surcharges result when high-strength BOD is discharged.

Certain strains of bacteria will feast on the waste and either put BOD in compliance or at least greatly reduce levels, provided enough bacteria are present and have a few hours to work before discharge. Breeding bacteria is not a food company’s core competency, though, and many facilities simply accept the surcharges as a cost of doing business.

Fortunately, plug-and-play remedies exist, and a simple ROI calculation can quickly determine if it’s financially beneficial to apply them. One example is BioAmp, a 2.5- by 1.67-ft. box that incubates a cocktail of 30 trillion bacteria every 24 hours. Seed pellets need replenishment monthly, but otherwise no servicing is required, according to Glenn Cramer, technical sales manager for Dallas-based Ecobionics. The box usually is mounted on a wall, plugged into an electrical socket and stocked with a couple of gallons of potable water. After that, hungry bacteria are automatically metered into a holding tank to do their thing.

Describing the unit as “a whiz-bang, cost-effective way to produce bacteria on a daily basis,” Cramer says the bugs are effective at a pH range of five to nine and in water between 50° and 100°F. “I like three to four hours holding time at a minimum,” he adds. “Sugar is easy to treat. Fat and meat take longer.”

Typically, plants install the unit, pay for a few months’ supply of pellets and compare surcharge-reduction savings to the system’s operating cost before committing to ongoing use. “If we do a plug-and-play, we usually get a 30 percent BOD reduction,” says Cramer. The five strains of bacteria “produce enzymes that degrade dang near everything,” he adds, and if cost savings aren’t produced, the units “go out as easy as they go in.”

Refineries, paper mills and other facilities with organic loads use the system, including one food plant with 16 units. As for the bacteria, the box makes for a spacious incubator: If concentrated in a solid mass, 30 trillion bacteria weigh less than five grams, according to Cramer. 

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