No dairy processor operates in a vacuum. All manufacturing operations are associated with detrimental effects on the environment. The severity of those impacts, however, differs widely from processor to processor.

When it comes to environmental sustainability, the overachievers within the dairy processing sector have developed concrete goals and put into place programs and projects to help them attain those goals. This reality is a win not only for the environment but also for their businesses. And the list of overachievers expands each year.

“A large and growing number of manufacturers are realizing substantial financial and environmental benefits from sustainable business practices,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes on its “Sustainable Manufacturing” website page. “Sustainable manufacturing is the creation of manufactured products through economically-sound processes that minimize negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources. Sustainable manufacturing also enhances employee, community, and product safety.”

Dairy processors struggling or seeking additional improvements within the sustainability arena could find inspiration in other dairy manufacturers’ success stories. We share five such success stories here.

Milk Specialties converted its Monroe, Wis., plant into a central whey collection facility for local cheesemakers that concentrates the whey solids prior to transportation.

A way with whey

Sustainability is in Milk Specialties Global's DNA. After all, the company was founded “around the idea of upcycling food,” says Matt Whann, vice president of safety and sustainability for the Eden Prairie, Minn.-based company. For example, it converts whey left over from cheesemaking into value-added ingredients such as milk protein, whey protein, and more.

Milk Specialties took its sustainability efforts to the next level, however, when it helped to address an issue with excess whey in Wisconsin.

The company had purchased a cheese plant in Monroe, Wis., in 2016 as a staging site to collect whey from local cheese producers. It partnered with many of the local cheesemakers to process their whey into value-added ingredients, Whann notes.

However, the whey supply from local Wisconsin cheesemakers far outweighed the processing capacity at the Monroe site. As a result, excess whey that could not be processed was trucked more than 100 miles to Milk Specialties’ Fond Du Lac, Wis., facility for processing — or was simply trucked away from the cheese plant and dumped.

Milk Specialties saw an opportunity to convert the Monroe plant into a central collection facility for local cheesemakers that concentrates the whey solids prior to transportation, Whann says. It ultimately retrofitted the facility to add surface area to the liquid processing equipment and modify the filtration system so it could handle the capacity gains.

The results are impressive. According to Whann, heavy truck travel was slashed by more than 237,000 miles annually, representing a savings of more than 47,000 gallons of diesel fuel and a 486-metric-ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The facility enables the reclamation/diversion of more than 377,000 pounds of whey solids annually and recycles almost 3 million gallons of water from the whey.

Other dairy processors could replicate the project via collaboration, Whann says.

“Milk Specialties is currently exploring several similar projects to reclaim whey destined for disposal [and] concentrate the solids while recycling the water before further processing it into products that can be used in consumer goods such as protein bars and protein shakes,” he notes. “The quickest way for the dairy industry to achieve its sustainability goals is by working together.”

Emmi Roth’s plant employees took ownership of the water-intensity goals and were critical to the company’s impressive achievements.

Going beyond in water reduction

In 2020, Emmi Group — the Lucerne, Switzerland-based parent company of U.S. cheesemaker Emmi Roth — set some ambitious goals tied to environmental sustainability. According to Emily King, sustainability manager for Fitchburg, Wis.-headquartered Emmi Roth, the “goals revolve around increasing operational circularity — eliminating waste and maximizing resources — and reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.”

The science-based goals are centered on the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), she notes. Specifically, they are based on SDG goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), goal 13 (Climate Action), and goal 15 (Life on Land).

Emmi Roth wasted no time acting on its parent company’s goals, with water consumption becoming a major focus for the cheesemaker.

“Our goal at Emmi Roth was to reduce water consumption by 15%,” King says. “We measure freshwater consumption, but our ambition was to decrease water intensity — or how much water we use to produce our products.”

And the company has greatly exceeded its initial goal.  

“Emmi Roth has decreased its water intensity by 55% since 2019,” King notes. “Through simple exercises like fixing leaky pipes and larger projects like recapturing water for our cooling systems, we were able to make impactful strides quickly. We are celebrating this achievement as a company because our work went well beyond our goal of decreasing water use by 15% and offers momentum for our environmental sustainability work.”

King credits the water teams that the Emmi Roth Sustainability Steering Committee created in each of the company’s three-cheese plants for the achievement.

“I’m most proud of those teams,” she says. “Our employees, our boots on the ground, earned the whole recognition for obliterating our goals.”

These teams met regularly to pinpoint opportunities for water savings and implement projects within the plants, King explains.

“The water teams had ownership over the water use at their plant, and the collaboration between highly strategic operations changes and resourceful alterations was seamless,” she adds. “These kinds of initiatives force a perspective change to systems thinking, and our employees did an incredible job. This achievement solidified a sense of optimism surrounding our grand objectives throughout our organization.”

As King sees it, sustainability should not be a viewed as a competitive area among dairy processors. She says other dairy processors are welcome to contact the company for “suggestions and support” in their water-intensity-reduction efforts.

“I would recommend ensuring upstream and downstream communication and governance to complete water projects,” she offers as advice. “Without proper communication and governance, a goal is intangible. Buy-in and morale are key to making the changes necessary to evolve operations; then metering within operations is requisite. You can’t know what you can’t measure.”

The anaerobic digester project with Barstow’s Longview Farm grew over time to provide all the electricity Cabot Creamery uses to make butter.

Turning waste into energy

For many dairy companies, manufacturing waste is an unfortunate reality — it is simply discarded, adding to the collective wastewater or landfill burden. Waitsfield, Vt.-based Cabot Creamery, however, knew it could do better. So the cooperative partnered with Vanguard Renewables, Wellesley, MA, about a decade ago with the vision of turning its inedible manufacturing waste into renewable energy. Vanguard Renewables currently operates six farm-powered anaerobic digesters in New England.

As Jed Davis, director of sustainability for Cabot Creamery, explains, the project began in 2010 as a series of conversations with Bill Jorgenson, who worked for one of Vanguard Renewables’ predecessor organizations at that time.

“The conversation related to a vision of how combining dairy manure and other process organics might increase the output of the generator, thereby effectively requiring fewer cows to pencil out a successful project,” he says. “At the time in 2010, to pencil out an anaerobic digester project using just cow manure required 1,000 or more cows, well above the size of the typical farms in our cooperative. By pursuing co-digestion instead, this could be affordable for a much smaller-size farm — say 400 cows.”

Cabot Creamery also wanted to find an alternative to sending its process organics to the municipal wastewater plant, Davis notes, and viewed the farm-powered digester as a way to “upcycle” the organics. It first became involved with the “Jordan Farm project,” which went live in 2011. But that farm — not a Cabot Creamery cooperative member — was located too far from the processing facility, and transportation costs were high.

Two years later, an anaerobic digester project was completed at the Barstow’s Longview Farm. Located just 15 miles from the processing plant and situated in the same utility region, the farm also is a Cabot Creamery cooperative member, Davis notes.

“Still, this was a project with many moving parts, as the cost-neutral design of the project worked because the long-term electricity contracting for the farm’s output (that which the farm didn’t use) offset the higher cost of handling the process organics and diverting them to the digester,” he notes. “Over time, Barstow’s grew to provide all the electricity that we use to make Cabot butter, which allowed us to then communicate this with our customers, right on the package. The marketing messaging essentially became ‘The cows in our cooperative provide both the cream and electricity to make Cabot butter.’”

Cabot Creamery now is transforming its inedible organic waste into renewable energy at a number of Vanguard Renewables’ farm-powered anaerobic digesters in New England. According to Vanguard Renewables, the cooperative has thus far:

  • Mitigated approximately 17,000 tons of greenhouse gas.
  • Produced enough renewable energy to power the equivalent of 681,000 buses annually.

Cabot Creamery purchases a portion of the energy its waste generates at the farm-based anaerobic digesters to power its manufacturing facility in West Springfield, Mass., Vanguard Renewables adds.

Clover Sonoma launched the first fully renewable plant-based milk carton in 2020 and the first post-consumer-recycled (PCR) gallon milk jug in 2021.

Rethinking the carton and jug

Petaluma, Calif.-based Clover Sonoma has long been a sustainability standout. The third-generation family-owned and family-operated dairy company aims to bring “conscious dairy products” from its 30 family farms direct to consumers, says Kristel Corson, chief growth officer.

“We were the first dairy in the United States to become American Humane Certified, and hold our partnership of family-owned dairy farms to a higher standard by developing our own unique Clover Promise of Excellence — standards across animal welfare, environmental stewardship, and milk quality,” she says. “As a Certified B Corporation, we use our business as a power to do good, and our passionate support of animal welfare, sustainable practices, and local community continue to be hallmarks of the business.”

Clover Sonoma has been particularly active on the packaging sustainability front as of late. It partnered with packaging suppliers Tetra Pak and Pactiv Evergreen to transition to a fully renewable, 100% plant-based milk carton (97% on the ultra-high-temperature carton) in 2020. The carton features a sugarcane-derived poly liner in lieu of a fossil-fuel-derived one, resulting in a 35% CO2 reduction, Corson notes. And it uses Forest Stewardship Council Mix Certified Paperboard (FSC MIX) to ensure support of sustainable forestry management.

“These two elements make the packaging renewable, as well as recyclable,” she explains. “Our fully renewable milk carton will be transitioned to our entire organic fluid milk line by 2025.”

In 2021, Clover Sonoma also announced the debut of the first post-consumer-recycled (PCR) gallon milk jug in the United States. Starting with 30% PCR content, the company said it made the commitment to increase the PCR content across all of its organic gallon milk jugs, also by 2025.

“Using PCR content in plastic packaging creates a closed-loop system for recycling plastic gallon milk jugs and ensures that plastic is neither created nor destroyed, but reused for a single purpose,” Corson says. “According to an industry lifecycle assessment report, a study concluded that recycled plastic reduced total energy consumption by 88% and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 71% for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) compared to virgin material. In order to achieve that goal, more consumers need to ‘recycle the jug’ and create more HDPE plastic to be reused as PCR content in or jugs.”

Corson says Clover Sonoma continually looks for ways to use more renewable resources and slash its carbon footprint. Right now, the company is “focused on extending and expanding” its current packaging innovations. It also is exploring new categories such as yogurt for potential sustainable packaging projects.

“Packaging is the most visible and omnipresent statement of any CPG brand,” she says. “Today’s consumers are looking for products that will allow them to minimize their impact.”

Corson points to the 2021 Tetra Pak Index, which shows that consumers increasingly are looking for transparency from brands, as well as the “information they need to make informed, responsible choices.” In fact, according to the index, more than a third of consumers indicate that they now choose brands based on their sustainability credentials to a greater degree than they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Water treated in Rumiano Cheese’s in-house wastewater treatment facility goes into the Smith River.

Operating a zero-waste plant

Rumiano Cheese gives new meaning to the phrase “waste not.” As Joe Baird, CEO of the Crescent City, Calif.-based company, points out, Rumiano Cheese operates a zero-waste cheese manufacturing plant.

“Everything from cardboard and plastic to whey and wastewater is recycled and repurposed,” he says. “We have instituted several processes that work to reduce our energy use and carbon footprint.”

Those processes include an in-house wastewater treatment facility that biologically treats 20,000 gallons of wastewater from cheese production each day. The facility prevents 99% of milk solids from entering the environment through groundwater and rivers, Baird says, and also results in potable and usable water for the community.

“This process puts clean water and food-grade compost equivalents back into the land and saves the local community millions of dollars every year in solid waste treatment,” he notes.

In addition, Rumiano Cheese constructed vertically integrated facilities that are as close as possible to its customers to decrease unnecessary transportation of raw materials and finished goods,” Baird says. And it has reduced the amount of packaging when it’s “safely possible” and continues to explore new materials consumers can compost or recycle more easily.

“But our commitment to sustainability goes beyond reducing waste throughout the farming and manufacturing processes,” Baird stresses. “Our work as the pioneers in organic pastured-based agriculture continues to accelerate, with a strong focus on regenerative agriculture.”

He points to carbon sequestration, water retention, and improved soil health as only a few the benefits of regenerative farming.

“Healthier soil grows healthier crops and ultimately creates healthier food while offering resilience for farmers,” Baird says. “This is why we believe that investing in soil health is the most significant thing we can do for our farmers, for our food, for our health, and for our planet. As we work toward a fully regenerative supply chain with our farmers, we are actively exploring collaborative programs, tools, and resources that will lay the foundation and set the standard for regenerative practices with the goal of promoting and achieving widespread adoption.”