By Krystal Gabert, Associate Editor
From humble beginnings selling natural foods to grocery stores out of the back of a van, Kettle Foods has grown to become a leading producer of potato chips with facilities in both Oregon and Wisconsin. With roots in the natural food movement, Kettle’s growth over the last 30 years has occurred with an eye on its own environmental impact and on the ways in which it can become a more responsible actor on both the local and global stages.
LEED®ing By Example The LEED® program, run by the Washington D.C. non-profit U.S. Green Building Council, certifies buildings that meet only the highest in a wide array of sustainability standards—ranging from energy consumption to material sourcing. Built in 2007, the Kettle Foods potato chip production plant in Beloit, WI is the first food processing plant to achieve gold certification through the LEED program.
Kettle began the LEED certification process by hiring Flad Architects, AEI Plumbing and ACS Construction—firms that were already familiar with the program and could help guide the company through the process. From choosing countertops and carpets made from recycled materials to the selection of large windows and skylights that would aid in the utilization of natural light, each construction and design decision was examined for its potential environmental impact and then meticulously documented for later submission to the LEED certification board.
“LEED is really becoming the future of building—the future of architecture,” says Kettle Foods Ambassador Jim Green. “It just makes sense to build things this way. Not only does this [program] build a building that is—construction-wise—as sustainable as possible, but it builds a building that’s very energy efficient and actually reduces energy costs. This thing pencils out.”
In fact, Kettle has already begun to see the financial benefits of LEED certification. Since production in the Wisconsin plant began in 2007, the company reports an annual savings of $110,000 in natural gas costs, $51,000 in electricity costs and $34,000 in water utility costs.
Renewable Energy Initiatives In addition to the LEED certification of the Wisconsin plant, Kettle Foods has committed itself to operational sustainability initiatives that go beyond the company’s physical structures themselves.
When Kettle moved its corporate headquarters to a new location in Salem, the state of Oregon was offering tax incentives to businesses that opted to use solar energy. The tax incentives helped offset the initial cost of installation, and the panels themselves reduce energy costs over time while remaining virtually maintenance free.
According to Green, “The solar panels just sit on the roof. The great thing about them is that there’s zero maintenance. They just sit and collect energy and produce electricity. It’s fabulous.”
Now one of the largest commercial solar power arrays in the Pacific Northwest, Kettle’s 616 solar panels generate 120,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough energy to make 250,000 bags of Kettle Brand® potato chips each year.
Green hopes that Kettle’s use of solar energy catches on: “Everyone thinks of Oregon and how rainy it is, and here we have this solar array and can show that solar even works in rainy Oregon. If it can work here, it can work anywhere.”
Complementary to the Oregon facility’s solar panels, the Kettle plant in Wisconsin has installed on its plant roof 18 wind turbines that generate 28,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough energy to produce 56,000 bags of chips each year.
Though these on-premises devices allow Kettle to create and utilize its own energy, there is still a need to source energy from the electrical grid. In order to reduce the environmental impact of this consumption, Kettle Foods purchases renewable energy credits to help offset the remaining energy consumption.
Native Landscape Restoration When Kettle Foods relocated its headquarters to the new plant in Oregon, the company set out to restore the land surrounding the plant. Invasive grasses and plants were removed, and in their place were planted native species. Today the land is a federally designated natural wetland.
The propagation of native plants and grasses has proven effective in controlling runoff and erosion because plants grow deeper root systems when planted in native soil. Additionally, native plants require little to no fertilizer and less water, saving both maintenance time and resources.
In 1999, the Kettle grounds in Oregon were open to the public. Says Green, “We tried to create a real park-like atmosphere. We put in some trails and interpretive signs, and we marked native species and really tried to invite the public by saying, ‘Come on; check it out. Just leave it as you found it.’”
A similar initiative to restore a native prairie on the grounds of the Wisconsin facility is under way.
Recycling & Waste Reduction Kettle extends its efforts to preserve the environment beyond the immediate surroundings of its own facilities. The company’s biowaste—potatoes and finished chips that don’t make the cut—is provided to other companies, which use it for compost and animal feed. Furthermore, none of Kettle’s agricultural waste enters the waste stream.
In addition to reducing waste costs through the recycling of agricultural materials, Kettle also recycles 180 tons of cardboard, 5 tons of plastic wrap and 4.5 tons of paper each year.
Perhaps a unique and unexpected opportunity for corporate sustainability can be found in the sheer amount of cooking oil required to operate one of the nation’s leading potato chip facilities. The plants in both Oregon and Wisconsin sell their used cooking oil to biofuel refineries and then buy back the finished product. Kettle recycles 2,300 gallons of waste oil each month and owns a fleet of corporate vehicles dubbed BioBeetles, which run on the recycled fuel.
“We think that it’s great,” declares Green, “because first of all, it’s a recycled product and you can run diesel engines on it, so it reduces our dependence on foreign oil. Plus, it’s really neat for us to use our own oil.”
Smooth Operations On top of the efficiencies implemented in the Kettle facilities, sustainable and green initiatives have been introduced to the plant floor itself. While Kettle has taken steps to ensure that the energy it consumes is as green as possible, it has also reduced the amount of energy needed to keep operations running.
The ceilings of the production area in the LEED-certified Wisconsin plant are fitted with skylights and light sensors. When the measured natural light in the plant is bright enough, some electrical lights are automatically turned off until they are needed again. In addition, the 2003 installation of next-generation compressors has served to reduce energy consumption by more than 180,000 kilowatt hours annually.
Allen-Bradley touch-screen programmable logical controllers (PLCs), located throughout the plant, aid in the reduction of resource consumption as well. The PLCs can deliver plant managers up-to-the-minute data and have virtually eliminated the need for the printing of paper reports, thus reducing Kettle’s net paper use.
At the Beloit facility, even the water itself is repurposed. Kettle uses a significant amount of water in order to adequately clean its potatoes during the production process. Instead of allowing that water to run off or immediately enter the waste stream, Kettle has installed a system that collects the used water—labeled gray water—and then filters and repurposes it for non-potable uses, such as supplying the toilets in all of its restroom facilities.
Beyond The Financials From energy cost savings—attributed to Kettle’s LEED-certified building, wind turbines and solar panels—to the reductions in landscaping costs from the newly native plant life surrounding its buildings, Kettle has found a way to make sustainability and profitability nearly synonymous.
But Kettle’s commitment to, as Green puts it, “tread as lightly as possible” goes far beyond the financial benefits of doing so. By choosing to build its newest facility in Wisconsin, Kettle Foods eliminated the long trek needed to ship orders to the Midwest and East Coast. Kettle estimates an annual reduction of 3 million pounds of carbon dioxide from the resulting shipping reductions alone.
Moreover, Kettle calculates that the solar array in Oregon reduces its carbon dioxide production by 65 tons annually, whereas the biodiesel program has an 8-ton impact.
Bob Manzer, plant manager of Kettle Foods’ Wisconsin plant, says that the company’s commitment to green production is the driving force behind the implementation of sustainable practices. “Kettle has been recognized as a leader in sustainability, and I’m really proud to be here. Kettle does these things because Kettle believes in them.”
And these things seem to be paying off—both economically and environmentally.