For food and beverage companies focused on landfill reduction, the effort yields solid financial returns. 

If ever there was a case for doing well by doing good, zero landfill is it. The mountains of food production waste that routinely gets buried is worth a lot more above ground than below. The converse also is true: Inefficient waste management is indicative of a poorly managed company.

Virtually every food and beverage company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) program includes a waste-reduction component, often with a goal of sending less than 1 percent of waste to landfill. Huge volumes must be diverted to achieve that rate, though the balance is more than a molehill: Craft brewer Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (SNBC) diverted 99.6 percent of waste two years ago and still sent 164 tons to landfills.

CSR comes wrapped in green, and the conservation credentials of SNBC Owner Ken Grossman and other independent firms are well established. But saving planet Earth usually takes a back seat to saving cash. Bob Shearer, founder of Shearer’s Foods Inc., winner of Food Engineering’s 2011 Plant of the Year award for its Massillon, OH facility, scoffed at the suggestion he was an environmentalist. Nonetheless, waste reduction and energy-recovery investments helped Shearer’s win LEED Platinum status and garner preferred-supplier status from some customers.

However, some of the wind in Shearer’s waste-reduction sails may be lost. In October, ownership transferred to Wind Point Partners, a Chicago private-equity firm.

Backsliding is a real possibility. Kellogg Co.’s 2012 CSR report discloses a 13 percent increase in landfilled waste. “Our long-term vision is to send zero waste to landfill,” it states, adding “there is no single reason for our increase” in both gross tonnage and the ratio of landfilled waste to food produced.

Seven Kellogg’s plants, including two US facilities, have achieved “zero waste to landfill,” the report states. A less ambitious goal of 95 percent diversion by 2020 is in place for Campbell Soup Co., though that would constitute a dramatic improvement over the current 80.2 percent rate. The company’s biggest facility in Napoleon, OH may be the first plant in the Campbell’s network to reach the goal, thanks to its status as the firm’s renewable-energy showcase.

By mid-year, a 2.2 MW biodigester is expected to come online across the road in this rural community midway between Toledo and Fort Wayne, IN. A third to half of the plant’s energy demand will be met by the electricity produced from the digester’s methane and waste-heat recapture, along with a 60-acre solar array, Campbell officials state.

The digester will be owned and operated by CH4 Biogas LLC, Atlantic Beach, FL, on a six-acre parcel purchased from Campbell and adjacent to the plant. Vice President Lauren Toretta estimates 90 percent of the digester’s feed stock will come from the Napoleon facility. It will undergo a pasteurization process before entering the digester, a process that will aid energy-production consistency, she says.

King of gas

Renewable-energy portfolios are mandated in 22 states, Toretta points out, but “you want a project that will stand on its own merits.” Though the Napoleon project relies on proven technology from a Swedish firm, CH4 currently operates only one biogas plant, a relatively small-scale digester in Covington, NY. Anheuser-Busch, on the other hand, operates 10 digesters at its 12 US breweries and is regarded as the world’s largest operator of anaerobic digesters by Biomass magazine.

Anaerobic digestion is primarily a wastewater treatment and odor-control intervention, though the resulting gas is not incidental. A-B’s Dale Pendleton, director-environment & safety at the St. Louis manufacturer, says about 10 percent of boiler gas demand is met by the digesters, a major component in the brewer’s goal of a 15 percent renewable-energy portfolio. Secondary uses for spent grain trace back to the late 19th century, Pendleton says, and the digesters help push A-B’s recycling rate “well over 99 percent,” he says.

Renewable energy isn’t an option in most companies’ zero-landfill efforts. For example, after sorting its waste streams into reuse, recycling and composting categories, West Liberty Foods in Tremonton, UT was left with waste that defied secondary use (see related story below). It elected to send the remainder to an incinerator that generates electricity from the trash, despite a higher cost than landfilling.

In fact, incineration is becoming the go-to option for many food companies. McKee Foods, maker of Little Debbie snacks, was able to find reuses for 97 percent of the 1,000 tons of waste generated annually at its Gentry, AR plant. To reach zero status, the remaining 30 tons are trucked 100 miles to an incinerator in Tulsa, OK. Sunny Delight Beverages Co. follows a similar path for 7 percent of trash at its Sherman, TX facility, though at 200 miles, it’s a longer trip.

The Tulsa incinerator is operated by Covanta Energy Corp. The Morristown, NJ firm prefers the euphemism “EfW facility,” shorthand for energy from waste. The company operates 40 facilities in North America, including Tulsa, which became the first EfW site in 1986. Assured destruction of recalled food and sensitive documents is a big part of Covanta’s business, but the zero-landfill movement is helping to grow the waste-to-energy application, allows Derek Veenhoff, senior vice president. McKee pays a premium for certification that nothing shipped from Gentry, AR ends up in a landfill.

In Covanta’s view, incineration equals energy recovery, and if a national energy policy is established, its power generation could benefit from favored treatment of renewable energy sources. In fact, the firm maintains energy recovery is the foundation of sustainability’s reduce, reuse and recycle pyramid. Veenhoff directs the business unit known as Covanta4Recovery.

Some states are poised to ban disposal of organic materials in landfills, just as several European nations have done, directing waste instead to incinerators for electrical generation. Incineration raises concerns over emissions, but NSF International’s John Mequio argues that strict permitting requirements minimize pollution issues. “What is worse, burying it or burning it?” he asks.

Caesar’s wife

In some quarters, incineration is anathema to environmental objectives. Stonyfield Farm, the Londonderry, NH organic dairy owned by France’s Group Danone, defines zero waste as nothing to landfill and nothing to incinerators. “A lot of companies have taken advantage of incineration technology to get to zero landfill,” notes Wood Turner, vice president-sustainability & innovation. “Our goal is more ambitious and includes disincentives to use material that might end up in an incinerator in the first place.”

The purity of that approach is shared by other firms, including SNBC, Food Engineering’s Sustainable Plant of the Year in 2009, but it requires some compromise. At Stonyfield, redirecting 91 percent of the stream is defined as zero waste. The dairy realized its first zero-waste month in 2012. Zero waste became a goal in 2006, and Stonyfield is targeting 2017 for reaching it.

“There is certainly a lot of gaming when it comes to zero-waste claims,” Turner says, dismissing incineration as “fossil fuels in a different configuration. It doesn’t move us forward because it doesn’t incentivize moving up in the stream to eliminate waste.” Rather than focusing only on internal efforts, Stonyfield is “pushing it out to the supply chain,” sharing what it has learned with suppliers and providing alternative disposal options to consumers.

Staff engagement is essential if zero landfill is to be attained, and the dumpster dive to sort and categorize waste is the starting point for many plant programs. At Stonyfield, the exercise has been so successful at increasing recycling and reuse opportunities, Turner is considering conducting two or three dives a year, with a rotating cast of five to 12 people spending a day analyzing the debris each time. “We used to have trash pickup six days a week,” he says. “Now we have one.”

Diversion was a starting point at Hormel Foods Corp., but today’s focus is on maximizing the value of what used to be regarded as waste, according to Tom Raymond, director of environmental sustainability at the Austin, MN firm. “We’ve seen seven-digit returns” from the diversion of certain waste streams, says Raymond, underscoring the lucrative potential of a comprehensive waste program.

“Behavior-based sharing” is central in the Hormel corporate culture, whether it involves process improvements, solid waste management or any other activity in the company’s network of 40 production plants. An annual Best of the Best award highlights outstanding initiatives. Not all of them are transferable system-wide, nor should they be. For instance, the Farmer John plant in Vernon, CA reduced landfill waste by 445 tons in 2011 with an incineration project. “Waste to energy is a step back from landfill, in my view,” Raymond believes. Nonetheless, Farmer John has distinguished itself in continuous improvement in waste reduction. “It’s not because they’re in California but because of the management and the staff engagement,” he says.

This year, California suspended a waste-reduction awards program that traces to 1993 because of a new requirement that all commercial operations have some kind of recycling program in place. SNBC’s Cherie Chastain scoffs at the law, however, saying most businesses are unaware of it, and compliance can be as simple as placing a dumpster in the yard and calling it a recycling center. Food companies that fail to embrace zero-waste objectives fail to understand the economics and the need to drive out operational inefficiency in all areas of the enterprise. The brewery’s waste diversion rate ticked up one-tenth of 1 percent to 99.8 percent last year. “We avoided $5 million in disposal costs, and we generated $875,000 in revenue,” reports Chastain. “I pretty much paid my salary for the rest of my tenure in one year.”

Maximum ROI

An environmental halo is the zero-landfill payback for many firms, but the financial benefits should not be overlooked. The best payback yesterday may not be the most profitable tomorrow. “Our procurement group is always pounding the pavement for new customers and new uses,” A-B’s Pendleton says. Reclaimed materials are commodities that command ever-changing prices, and monitoring those changes is critical to maximizing value.

At 2.7 billion lbs., spent grain was far and away A-B’s primary waste stream in 2011, but there were plenty of other materials. The breweries generated 146 million lbs. of yeast, 622 million lbs. of scrapped wooden pallets, 38 million lbs. of class cullet and 34 million lbs. of cardboard. Other significant material streams include plastic (7 million lbs.), aluminum (3.4 million lbs.) and scrap metals (34 million).

A nice feature of metal is that it only burns at extremely high temperatures. For every 100 tons of solid waste it incinerates, Covanta recovers 5,000 lbs. of metal, the company claims.

Sweat equity drives most zero-landfill programs, though technology can help. Stonyfield purchased “depackaging equipment” to recover packaged yogurt after an audit quantified how much product waste was ending up in dumpsters, Turner says, and SNBC diverted more than 254 tons of food waste last year from its restaurant with HotRot, a high-tech aerobic digester that converts it to compost within two weeks and without odor. A-B partnered with a service company that developed an automated material-separation system for office waste, eliminating multiple bins and boosting recycling participation.

Plastic waste and meat-casing streams remain a challenge for Hormel. “We’re looking for technology that may not be available today,” concedes Raymond, “but we keep pushing to continuously improve.”

Whether they are recent converts to zero landfill or have a long-established waste-reduction culture, all food companies can bolster profitability with comprehensive waste-reduction programs. As J.C. Hormel declared in the 1950s, “Our money will go to wages or waste. I prefer wages.” Efficiency correlates with profits, and inefficiency in any area negatively impacts the bottom line.

For more information:

Lauren Toretta, CH4 Biogas LLC, 917-734-2237,

Derek Veenhoff, Covanta Energy Corp., 973-882-9000

John Mequio, NSF International, 734-769-8010


In pursuit of 1 percent

The de facto definition of zero landfill is redirection of 99 percent of waste to uses other than landfilling. However, it is a standard born more of convenience than convention, according to managers at Ann Arbor-MI-based NSF International.

Last year, NSF launched a landfill-free verification program. Drawing on EPA regulations for toxic materials, NSF adopted 1 percent as the landfill-free benchmark. Just as toxic content of less than 1 percent is considered virtually safe, NSF auditors adopted 1 percent for landfill-free verification, though that level is not specified in any international standards, including the ISO 14000 family that addresses environmental practices. Environmental claims are covered in ISO 14000:21, but it does not specify what constitutes landfill free, according to John Mequio, NSF’s environmental & safety business unit manager.

West Liberty Foods’ Tremonton, UT facility (“Fabulous Food Plant,” Food Engineering, December 2008) became the first food plant to be verified landfill free by NSF. The only other verified plant is West Liberty’s Mount Pleasant, IA processing facility. Besides documenting 60 distinct waste streams and helping Tremonton divert almost 4.5 million lbs. annually away from landfills, auditors advised plant personnel on optimizing the financial value received from alternative disposal options.

To help other food companies gain a better understanding of the issue, NSF has tentatively set January 22 for a webinar on zero landfill. Before pursuing a program, Mequio advises companies to comply with ISO 14000:1, the environmental management standard. “If you don’t already have an environmental management system in place that meets 14000:1, you are not going to be landfill free,” he cautions.