By BOB BALGEMANN
Business Journal writer
MODESTO — Crystal Creamery’s path to sustainable practices started in 2014 during a brainstorming session among its employees. The goal was to create a sustainable program to reduce food waste, promote socially responsibility, made sense economically and helped the company be a good neighbor to the environment.
The program the company developed implemented in less than a year caught the eye of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This year, Crystal Creamery won the national Food Recovery Challenge Award for Innovation from the EPA, which cited the company as a leader in sustainability.
The award was issued in conjunction with an initiative launched in 2013 by the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture. At that time, they called on those in America’s food supply chain to reduce, recover and recycle food waste.
Food waste in the United States is estimated to make up 30-46 percent of the total food supply, according to those federal agencies. In 2010, it was estimated that 113 billion pounds of food from U.S. retail stores, restaurants and homes didn’t make it into people’s stomachs.
The amount of uneaten food in homes and restaurants was valued at almost $390 per consumer.
Hence the effort by the EPA and USDA to reduce such waste. But the challenge is complex and, as seen in the company’s plan, goes beyond the United States wasting so much of its bounty.
Crystal Creamery assembled a team primarily responsible for crafting a sustainable plan that addressed food waste in a number of areas. It was led by the company’s sustainability and environmental program manager, Tiffany Hooser. The team also included Organic Solutions Management technical director John Brenan as well as Crystal’s maintenance manager Doug Cox and chief engineer Matt Titus.
In part, the plan included re-engineering existing equipment and systems along with a better use of milk byproducts, Brenan said. That resulted in less material going into the landfill and fewer trucks on the road.
The process begins when milk from area farms is trucked into the Crystal Creamery plant in Modesto. There, Foster Farms, doing business as Crystal Creamery, produces a full line of dairy products including cottage cheese, sour cream, ice cream, milk powder and butter.
An important element in making those products is food safety, which requires a clean-in-place process of routinely rinsing and sanitizing the pipes and equipment. To do that, the creamery operates an industrial waste water pretreatment system to remove organic contaminants before the water is sent into the plant’s waste water treatment system. There, chemicals are added to separate the solids from the water before the water is piped to the city of Modesto’s treatment plant for further purification.
A byproduct of all that, known as sludge, is trucked to the Fiscalini Farms digester, about 10 miles north of the Crystal plant. Once there it is mixed with manure from some 2,000 dairy cows and put into large tanks with mixers.
“They’re just like large stomachs,” said team member Brenan.
Methane gas, another important element in the plan, is produced from that process and provides enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.
A 16-cylinder, 1,200-horsepower engine powers the generator that delivers that electricity to an adjacent grid, a system of power lines, for distribution to where it’s needed.
Another impact of the plan, Hooser said, is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions caused by hauling the organic byproducts for management. Fiscalini Farms’ digester is close to the Crystal processing plant, and that saves more than 10,000 miles of transportation each year.
In addition, the change in chemistry at the company’s processing plant reduces the organic load on the city of Modesto’s treatment plant. That saves the city money and reduces the volume of solids requiring disposal.
With its new plan in place, Crystal’s goal is to have zero waste by the year 2020.
“We’re at 98-and-a-half percent right now,” Hooser said. “But the last 1-and-a-half percent is the toughest to capture.”
And what’s so hard about that? “Because there’s no use for it,” she said.
Some 24,000 cows from five family farms and 18 dairies provide milk for the Crystal Creamery plant. Milk production is the No. 2 commodity in Stanislaus County, with a value in 2014 of $952.18 million.
Crystal Creamery’s effort “shows the ag industry is concerned about the environment and waste,” said Stanislaus Agriculture Commissioner Milton O’Haire. “They’re an example of one that has gone above and beyond. It’s awesome for them to have won this kind of an award.”
“(Crystal Creamery) firmly believes that we have a responsibility in making sure that we do our best in giving back to the community, and reducing wasted food does just that,” Crystal Creamery President Frank Otis said in a press statement.
The Crystal team will continue working to enhance the plan, which is ongoing and will be updated on a regular basis. New challenges lie ahead, including water reclamation and conservation, according to Hooser.
Crystal Creamery was founded in 1901 and is owned by the Foster Family. It employs about 650 people.