Food companies have a dual responsibility when it comes to waste reduction aspirations: optimizing their operations to minimize food waste while reducing the amount of other materials — especially the waste associated with packaging — sent to landfill. The aspiration for a growing number of them is "zero waste."
But meat companies that raise animals such as poultry, pigs, cattle and other livestock for protein also must take into account something else few widget, gadget or electronics makers need to worry about — how to manage water and materials contaminated by organic, biological waste.
This work continues amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has rocked the meat supply chain and forced closures of facilities across the United States, according to the executives interviewed for this article. It also has complicated matters, as procedures around the expanded use of personal protective equipment were embraced to protect the health of workers and consumers. More precautions have meant more PPE, which usually has come in contact with biological matter that causes management challenges for recycling facilities.
"The one thing that is difficult — and it’s difficult for all companies but especially, I think, in the protein industry — there’s just certain materials you can’t recycle or reuse," said Steve Levitsky, vice president of sustainability for well-known chicken purveyor Perdue Farms.
Another vivid example: plastic that has been used to wrap meat, which cannot be sent to traditional facilities without first being decontaminated. "That’s the one material that we have not found the perfect solution for at this point, whether it be at a plant or at your home," he said.
That’s why the recent GreenCircle zero waste certification for Perdue’s harvest operation (industry parlance for a slaughter and processing facility) in Lewiston, North Carolina is noteworthy. The designation indicates that 100 percent of the waste stream at the facility is reused, recycled or incinerated for energy. That includes packaging scraps, chicken litter (which includes bird excrement, feathers and materials used for bedding), oils and personal protective equipment worn by the workers. For this particular facility, that translated into 8.3 million pounds of waste diverted during 2019, according to the company’s press release about the achievement.
The zero waste certifications granted by some other certification bodies allow for up to 10 percent of waste to go to landfill — and still earn that label, Levitsky said. "We wanted to make sure if we go through this process ... it’s rigorous enough and that people feel when we say ‘zero waste to landfill’ that we’re doing every effort to get to that higher standard," he said.
Perdue’s corporate-level waste goal calls for it to divert 90 percent of solid waste from landfills by 2022; it plans to have five more facilities certified by the end of 2022 (of about 20 meat production operations in total).
The one thing that is difficult — and it’s difficult for all companies but especially, I think, in the protein industry — there’s just certain materials you can’t recycle or reuse.
Some measures Perdue uses to divert waste in Lewiston include composting for all the organic matter such as litter or shells from the hatchery and food waste from the cafeteria; refurbishing end-of-life equipment by sending things such as engines back to the original manufacturer; sorting of plastics, cardboard, metals and glass; turning spent grain into animal feed or feed additives; and sending some organic matter to an anaerobic digester for energy applications.
A GreenCircle certification isn’t simply a matter of filling out a survey. It requires on-site auditing not just of the company hoping to earn the recognition but also of all third-party waste management organizations hired to reduce waste, said Tad Radzinski, certification officer at GreenCircle. (When GreenBiz spoke with him in early May, his team was sorting out how to accomplish this using virtual tools.)
"The one thing we always do is push for continuous improvement," he said.
Perdue made changes over the past year about how to handle damage or broken pallets, based on information gathering during the GreenCircle auditing process, Levitsky said. Specifically, it discovered that the company it was sending them to wasn’t remanufacturing them as Perdue believed and instead was sending certain damaged ones to landfill. Using that knowledge, the Lewiston team now sorts those materials into its waste-to-energy dumpster.
Generally speaking, zero waste strategies for animal protein companies don’t cover the meat, organs or bones of the slaughtered animals. Finding partners that can use those items is embedded into the core business strategy. Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, for example, created the Smithfield BioScience division in 2017 to come up with solutions for using meat production by-products such as mucosa, glands and skin for medical applications.
From a corporate perspective, Smithfield’s commitment is to reduce overall solid waste sent to landfills by 75 percent by 2025. In the U.S., it plans to certify at least three-quarters of its facilities as zero waste by that time frame. (It has 35 of them.)
The designation calls for it to recycle or reuse at least 50 percent of the waste at a given facility. So far, Smithfield has certified 30 percent of its U.S. sites including its largest facility in Vernon, California, according to the company's 2019 Sustainability Impact Report released this week. The site required a proprietary solution for treating peptone waste associated with its production of heparin, used for pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and medical device applications.
The packaging conundrum
One of the most difficult processes for any animal protein company is reducing the impact of packaging while complying with health considerations and the requirements of recycling organizations.
"Packaging is one valuable component within our supply chain where we are focused on reducing waste," said John Meyer, senior director of environmental affairs for Smithfield Foods, in responses emailed for this article. "Smithfield has partnered with packaging suppliers to ideate, research and test emerging recyclable and sustainable product materials for future development and implementation."
Three examples of ideas that already have found their way into practice:
- It changed the packages for its Prime Fresh line of pre-sliced delicatessen meats to look like the bags a consumer would receive from someone cutting them on the spot; these packets use about 31 percent less plastic than traditional offerings.
- It’s using product trays for the Pure Farmland plant-based products made from 50 percent recycled materials.
- Its Omaha facility moved away from paper labels to printed film, saving more than four tons of waste annually.
Silver Fern Farms, a New Zealand meat purveyor that specializes in beef, lamb and venison, permanently has removed close to 80 tons of plastic from its supply chain annually through a combination of measures, according to Matt Luxton, director of U.S. sales for the company. Silver Fern is New Zealand’s largest red meat producer; it started exporting to supermarkets in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York in 2019.
One of the biggest changes was the shift to "consumer-ready" packaging that includes pre-trimmed portions, a process intended to help minimize food waste both at the retail point of sale (where meat is traditionally butchered and repackaged) and with consumers concerned about portion control.
"We have done a lot of research into what a consumer wants and what volume meals they are consuming," Luxton said.
Silver Fern is also using vacuum-sealed packaging that extends the shelf life of the meat for an additional 25 days, while maintaining health and hygiene standards, and it also has eliminated some plastic liners and opted for thinner gauge plastics for export. While the company is studying ways of using recycled plastics, it hasn’t been able to find a material that duplicates the shelf life it can achieve with options already available, Luxton said.
Perdue also has been studying ways to package chicken in recyclable trays, an idea it borrowed from Coleman Natural, an organic meat company it acquired in 2011. While the idea works well for the organic brand, cost considerations kept the company from introducing it for the broader Perdue product lines.
"The problem with it is it’s more than double the cost of a foam tray," Levitsky said. "And to put that cost into a conventional chicken product just would not be feasible … We’re trying to drive that cost down and are looking at other companies that can maybe produce that tray. But right now, the price is just so high for those recyclable trays that we have not done it."