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SunOpta aims for zero waste

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By Jennifer Rose

Continuous improvement lies at the heart of the corporate philosophy at SunOpta, Inc.. “We are constantly looking for creative ways to do what we do better,” explains Gunta Vitins, the company’s director of public relations.

It should come as no surprise, then, that SunOpta has established a goal of zero waste for all of its production facilities, and that it has embraced an ‘out-of-the-box’ approach to achieve it.

One of the best examples of this innovative approach toward waste management can be seen at the company’s Cambridge, MN, oat fiber facility. Historically, processing at this plant resulted in large quantities of waste water. While less than desirable, the waste water did not present a major obstacle until 2006, when a confluence of events—growing demand for fiber and a decline in fiber production system’s performance—pushed the system beyond the limits it was originally designed to sustain. In response, SunOpta re-engineered its fiber production system, resulting not only in improved performance and water savings, but also in the company’s receipt of the 2009 Environmental Achievement Award from the Central States Water Environment Association. SunOpta was also recently selected as the 2010 recipient of the Industrial Water Quality Achievement Award by the Water Environment Federation (WEF).

In January 2010, SunOpta took the next step to bolster its waste reduction program. Using cutting-edge technology, the company sought to extract methane from the digestion of waste water resulting from the oat fiber production process. The new system will convert the methane to pipeline-quality natural gas and use the resulting energy to power the production facility itself. In short, Vitins remarks, “Our intention was to transform waste into a productive material that could literally help to fuel to the company and simultaneously help us to reduce our environmental footprint.”

Although the project is still under way, hopes run high as to the positive environmental impact it will yield. “We have strong reason to believe that when it is completed, this project will significantly reduce the waste water and greenhouse gas emissions associated with processing our products,” says Vitins. In addition, the project is expected to provide an excellent return on invested capital of approximately $1 million USD for SunOpta. “It’s really a win-win situation,” Vitins observes. “Less waste goes into the environment, and SunOpta is able to power its facility more cost-effectively.”

SunOpta’s improvement efforts have not stopped here. Over the past year, the Cambridge, MN, facility has also worked to reduce its water usage by 20 million gallons, improve the quality of the waste water generated in the production process, and increase its energy savings. “We’ve seen a tremendous difference just in this short period of time,” Vitins says. “It gives us even greater confidence that our focus on continuous improvement is paying off—both environmentally and from a business standpoint.”

The company hopes to receive additional positive feedback later this year, when it undergoes an audit by Deloitte. The audit will review data collected from each of SunOpta’s  67worldwide facilities to see how successful they have been at meeting the company’s zero-waste goal.

“We are looking forward to seeing the numbers,” Vitins says. “They will not only help us to indentify the progress it has made in terms of our carbon footprint, but also give us the insights that we need to focus our next step.