What to do with waste products from yogurt manufacturing can be a significant environmental concern but Alpina Foods has found a near-perfect solution.
Thousands of gallons of liquid whey are trucked away each day to a biodigester operated by CH4 Biogas in Wyoming County. The biodigester converts products such as whey and cow manure into methane gas, which in turn is used to generate electricity that is put on the state’s power grid.
Dave Scott of Alexander, operations supervisor of Alpina Foods’ 41,000-square-foot yogurt plant in the town of Batavia, explained the process this week during a tour of the facility. Alpina makes primarily a traditional, non-fat Greek yogurt at its facility in the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park.
The plant opened in the fall of 2012.
Scott started in a large room filled with stainless steel tanks and pipes. The metal cylinders were full of skim milk.
Alpina receives its pasteurized skim milk from a dairy company right next door, O-AT-KA Milk Products. Alpina pasteurizes it a second time and adds yogurt culture to it.
The mixture sits for four hours and is then pumped into high-speed centrifuges. The liquid is strained to retain the yogurt.
The whey — it is the remaining waste product — is pumped into a small, temporary holding tank, then into a larger one outside the building.
Scott walked up to a small, open tank and pointed inside to a soupy white liquid. An employee used clear containers to scoop up several ounces of the mixture.
“That’s the actual whey right there,” Scott said.
The whey is checked for its percentage of liquids versus solids, to ensure the non-fat yogurt is made with the proper mixture.
About 30 percent of the skim milk, after it’s separated and filtered, is used to make the yogurt. The remaining 70 percent is liquid whey waste.
Scott said increased demand for Alpina’s Greek yogurt means an increase in waste products. CH4 Biogas hauls away between 8,000 and 16,000 gallons a day.
Whey waste is very acidic, said Roger Parkhurst, industrial director of Alpina.
“It’s about 94 percent water. It also contains lactose (sugar), protein and minerals,” he said.
The environmental concern is that if it were discharged into a creek, it would suck in oxygen in order to break down the product. The anaerobic result means fish and other aquatic life could not survive in it, Parkhurst said.
Parkhurst said the company wants to get rid of its waste in an environmentally responsible manner. Alpina uses about a half million to 1 million pounds of milk per week.
“One hundred percent of our acid whey goes into digesting,” Parkhurst said.
Effective and efficient use of resources, such as the biodigester, fits in with the firm’s culture, he said in a phone interview this week.
“It helps keep our carbon footprint low,” Parkhurst said.
He said being a good corporate neighbor that partners with and benefits the community “is paramount to the baseline philosophy of Alpina.
“We feel it’s part of a core responsibility. We treat it very seriously,” Parkhurst said.
The industrial director said he’d like to see acid whey become a value-added product.
“The challenge for us is the economics. We’d prefer to sell it,” he said.
Alpina is also working with Rochester Institute of Technology, Cornell and New York state to explore other possible ways to use whey, Parkhurst said.
“Right now, putting it back on the grid is an excellent opportunity,” he said.
CH4 Biogas spokeswoman Lauren Toretta said other dairy-related businesses send whey to the company’s Covington biodigester but Alpina is its largest customer. Methane gas is produced from the decomposition of the organic material.
There are two byproducts that remain after methane gas is produced. A solid fiber is used by farmers as livestock bedding and a liquid is spread on fields as fertilizer, Toretta said.
“So it’s a very environmental solution to handling waste,” she said.