See the latest Sustainable Plant of the Year winner

In the past, Food Engineering’s Sustainable Plant of the Year story has focused on a single plant at one geographic location that has made significant strides in sustainability. But today, many food and beverage processors have plants in multiple locations, and they have begun taking a second look at all the facilities under the corporate umbrella to see where improvements can be made to increase their sustainability. Making plants more sustainable not only improves the bottom line, it also elevates the processor’s public image, often creating brand loyalty at the retail store.

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This year, Food Engineering has selected Smithfield Foods as its Sustainable Processor of the Year because the processor has made it a corporate priority to improve the sustainability of all its plants and for them to give back to the communities in which they’re located. This article  explores two successful projects at Smithfield’s John Morrell Food Group in Peru, IN and sustainability projects at Saratoga Food Specialties and Smithfield Farmland Corp. in Tar Heel, NC.

Being good stewards of water

John Morrell Food Group’s Armour-Eckrich Meats in Peru, IN has its own onsite wells, so having enough water to run its process has never been a problem. However, the amount of wastewater the processor had to pretreat before sending it to the public treatment center was significant—about 24 million gallons per year.

Mike Fritz, plant manager, and his team, Tim Benedict and Jim Cattin, thought it would be possible to cut the amount of wastewater being pumped to the public treatment center and, at the same time, reduce the amount of chemicals needed in the pretreatment process. They believed these goals could be accomplished by recycling dissolved air filtration (DAF) discharge water to make polymer solutions and to operate the belt press. In mid-2012, trials of the process were completed, and the team determined the use of effluent to mix polymer solution was a viable option.

Over the next four weeks, the team verified the effluent water would suffice as polymer makeup water. In August 2012, a new pump was purchased, and the next month, conduit and piping were installed. In October, the pump was installed in the effluent well of the DAF, and the system was successfully started in November. The entire project was completed in six short months.

For a one-time expenditure of $6,000 (which includes piping and conduit installation plus the cost of the pump), the facility has realized a cost savings in chemicals of $.45 per 1,000 gallons of water used at the facility,  for an annual reduction of $10,850 in chemical costs.  In addition, this project has reduced well water usage by 4.8 million gallons.

“By implementing this project, we have drastically reduced the amount of water we use for our wastewater process and have become more responsible stewards of the environment,” says Fritz.

Achieving zero landfill status

For nearly five years, John Morrell Food Group’s Armour-Eckrich Meats precooked bacon facility in Peru, IN found ways to reduce the amount of waste that went to landfill, in addition to improving recycling efforts. But it wanted to do even more. Inspired by a visit to a nearby zero-waste auto factory, plant management formed a team to spearhead an initiative to become the first Smithfield Foods facility to achieve zero landfill status by 2018. The final push began in February 2012; the facility reached its objective with the last load hauled to a landfill on May 31, 2012.

“Our minimization project’s [goal] was to reduce our solid waste by 65 percent and obtain zero landfill status. It drastically expanded our recycling endeavors beyond basic cans, paper, cardboard, etc.,” explains Michael Aust, John Morrell Food Group environmental, health and safety manager. “We now also recycle asphalt shingles, rubber boots, hard hats, oven belts, brown and white grease and a number of other items.”

The results? The total amount of waste shipped to a landfill was 999 tons in 2008; by 2013, that number had dropped down to ≤ 25 tons/year. (Items that cannot be recycled or sold for reuse are compacted onsite and trucked to a facility in Indianapolis that incinerates the trash to generate electricity.)

Employees at the site ensured recyclable material was placed in the proper containers, and only cafeteria wastes were placed in trash bins that were sent to Coventa, a waste-to-energy company. Employees also trained each another on the recyclable program; janitors, along with supervisors and the plant leadership team, provided oversight to ensure the recycle program was being followed.

Smithfield’s Peru, IN site became the first facility within Miami County, IN to obtain zero landfill status, according to Samantha Ward, executive director for the Miami County Solid Waste District.  It also took first place in the 2013 Indiana Governor’s Awards for Environmental Excellence in the Recycling/Reuse category. On February 15, 2013, the facility received notice it had won the Pollution Prevention Award from the American Meat Institute (AMI). More than 90 facilities had submitted entries.

Other John Morrell Food Group environmental managers have visited the site to observe the recycling process and staging areas, and have spoken with the project manager about how to start a similar project at their locations. “The success of this project affected our employees in a positive manner,” says Aust. “They are proud to work for an organization that is striving to reduce its environmental footprint. Visitors, new hires and contractors who come to the site are told about our zero landfill project. They are pleased to see that the leadership at the site and our company as a whole are protecting natural resources and providing pollution prevention solutions.”

Plant cuts wasted resources

“Saratoga Food Specialties is a growing dry spice blends company that has embraced sustainability as a core element of its business,” explains Carmen Lopez, environmental/ maintenance engineering systems administrator. “We believe in minimizing our industry environmental footprint and giving back to the community that we call home. We see sustainability as a means of setting us apart from our competitors.”

Located in Bolingbrook, IL, Saratoga has achieved several notable accomplishments, many related to its sustainability efforts. While its business has grown by a factor of 317 percent in the past five years, its actual energy usage has decreased by 19 percent from FY 2008 to CY 2013; the average production-weighted decrease in energy was 76 percent. Actual water usage decreased by 81 percent during the same five-year period; weighted against production, the decrease was 94 percent per hundredweight of product.

“Our actual solid waste sent to the landfill decreased by 75 percent from FY 2008 to CY 2013,” says Lopez. Weighted to production, the decrease was 76 percent. “We are 100 percent compliant with environmental rules 100 percent of the time and have been for years,” adds Lopez. “As of June 1, 2014, we met the Smithfield Foods requirements for zero landfill. Our site also is the first zero landfill facility in Bolingbrook, IL.”

Since 2008, Saratoga has been pursuing the sustainability initiatives developed by its parent company Smithfield Foods. “One of the first initiatives we participated in was waste reduction,” recalls Lopez. “We started with identifying recycling opportunities to pull waste out of the landfill, and we soon realized most of what we were landfilling had a recycling outlet.” In 2011, Saratoga shifted its internal goal from 10 percent reduction of landfill waste to zero landfill waste (see Saratoga waste reduction graph above).

“With the world population surpassing 7 billion people in 2013, we recognize that energy use is a common problem we all face,” says Lopez. “Thus, reducing its usage is critical as we grow our business. We continue to pursue energy-efficiency projects throughout our facility; however, most of our progress has been achieved by growing our business base. One project that allowed us to reduce our energy usage was the elimination of antiquated high bay lights [by replacing them] with more efficient T-5 lighting. Another project allowed us to reduce our natural gas usage by installing circulating fans and charcoal filters that scrub the plant air and move it around the plant. The fans and filters also bring warmer air in the winter from the roof line down to the floor and clean the air so we don’t have to exhaust as much out of the building.” By the close of 2013, the Saratoga facility had reduced its energy usage by 76 percent (see Saratoga energy reduction graph on page 54).

Since 2008, the Saratoga facility also has cut water usage per 100 pounds of product from slightly more than 44 gallons to 2.74 gallons, a reduction of 94 percent (see Saratoga water reduction graph on page 58). Saratoga achieved this goal by constantly challenging old processes and equipment. New dry cleaning processes, extended run production sequencing and low-flow nozzles on foamers and hoses have allowed Saratoga to decrease its water usage.

Beyond saving energy and water resources, processors today realize how important their extended community is—not just employees and their immediate families, but the geographic community that surrounds them. Participating in cleanup projects, scouting organizations and food banks are good examples of community involvement, and Saratoga has done its part.

In a community beautification project, more than 80 Saratoga employees and their families worked with Will County Forest Preserve employees to help eradicate invasive shrubbery and non-native plants in an effort to re-establish Illinois oak forests. “We also worked with the Boys and Girls Club kids, sampling, testing and evaluating water from different sources and competed to see which group had the cleanest water,” says Lopez. In addition, more than 85 Saratoga employees helped strip and relabel over 30,000 cans of pumpkin for use in the Northern Illinois Food Bank Thanksgiving Meal program.

More than double the biogas

The Smithfield Farmland Corp. pork processing facility in Tar Heel, NC is the world’s largest. The plant includes a 3 MGD (million gallons per day) wastewater facility for the treatment of process, sanitary and other wastewater sources. Due to the facility being 20 years old, some renovation was required to prevent biogas from escaping into the air and instead capturing more of it for use in the facility’s boilers.

The wastewater treatment facility consists of a pretreatment system and a main treatment system. The pretreatment system uses a DAF unit and a centrifuge system for the recovery of grease and solids. The main treatment system consists of the following primary components:

  • Two anaerobic lagoons (or basins)
  • Three anoxic basins
  • Four aeration basins
  • Four final clarifiers
  • Four tertiary filters (with one dedicated to water reuse)
  • Reaeration basin
  • Ultraviolet disinfection system with a liquid chlorination/dechlorination boost
  • Emergency storage/stormwater lagoon
  • Pumping station.

The plant’s output discharges into the nearby Cape Fear River.

In 2012, the decision was made to replace the biogas covers on the two anaerobic basins. The covered basins are twins, each approximately 13 million gallons in size. During the wastewater anaerobic treatment process, the basins generate 14 MMcf (million cu. ft.) of biogas per month that is used as fuel for steam-generating boilers in the onsite rendering facility; there are eight boilers in total. The covers on the basins were original to the plant, and over the years, they had become unserviceable and were developing large slits, allowing substantial amounts of gas to escape. The system was shut down in October 2012 for renovation and brought back on line the following March.

Environmental Fabrics of Gaston, SC cut up and removed the old covers, fabricated new covers onsite and installed them. It took months to remove and replace the covers due to their size: Each basin occupies 5.75 acres of space.

With the old covers on the basins, Smithfield captured 14 MMcf of biogas monthly. With the new covers, the facility produces 36 MMcf of biogas. “When we first installed the new covers, we were capturing so much gas that we used to flare on average over 6 MMcf a month and utilize 29.7 MMcf in our boilers,” recalls Robert Harris, water/wastewater manager, Smithfield Farmland. “But we just completed the installation of equipment that will allow us to fire a third boiler on biogas to go after the 6 MMcf of gas we were flaring.

“In addition, we are completing a second project to install a new shell-and-tube condensate removal system to get rid of the moisture in our gas,” adds Harris.

The collection and use of biogas at Tar Heel is just one of the sustainability-related initiatives the facility has instituted over the years. “In 2011, we partnered with the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority to construct and operate a 6 MGD regional water treatment plant,” says Harris. “Concerns over the long-term availability of ground water for the region led us to partner with the authority to provide a facility to treat water from the nearby Cape Fear River. This facility supplies our operations and is also designed for expansion as the region’s water needs increase.”

Prior to the installation of the water treatment facility, Smithfield had installed a water reuse system that helps reduce water use and wastewater discharge. The system can treat up to 1.5 MGD.

Final wastewater effluent from the plant is reused as cooling water for the plant’s refrigeration system. In the summer months, as much as 1 MGD are reused for this purpose. The facility also uses 500,000 gallons per day to operate the wastewater solids belt pressing operation. (See the Tar Heel wastewater operation flow diagram on page 62 for an overall view of the system.) The onsite wastewater treatment system has been so successful that it’s a model for other organizations. “We are engaged in a cooperative effort with state regulators to utilize our facility as a training location for both water and wastewater operators,” says Harris.

“We also sponsor a water quality education program for our local school system,” states Harris. Smithfield Foods purchases and provides to the schools, free of charge, EPA World Water Monitoring Challenge test kits.  The Tar Heel plant personnel team partners with local science teachers to help school kids test local water for various parameters in a hands-on fashion. The children also participate in an annual summer camp; the entire school participates in a week-long Water Camp at the school to foster environmental awareness, according to Harris.

Start small and work toward results

The projects implemented by these Smithfield locations show that you don’t need a multimillion dollar program to produce positive results. Start small and work up. Educate employees to do their part—whether it’s recycling, shutting down equipment when it’s not in service, finding sources of energy leaks or replacing older energy- and resource-hogging equipment. Every little bit adds up, and everyone feels good about doing his or her part. Plus, it won’t take long for your community and your customers to see your company is a responsible environmental steward.