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Company maximizes sustainability practices

Pacific Natural Foods pulls out all the stops in effort to minimize waste


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Erik Gottschalk, vice president of operations at Pacific Natural Foods, guides a tour of the companys Tualatin Plant where soy beans are ground up and blending stations are located. Sustainability has a broad definition. Depending on who you talk to, recycling and composting might be the bottom line. Or perhaps it means keeping a garden at home for fresh produce. Maybe sustainability is using energy-saving light bulbs or remembering to turn off the lights when leaving a room. At Pacific Natural Foods, sustainability is everything.

“We talk a lot about creating products and work places that are safe and healthy for our employees, our customers and the planet,” said Rory Schmick, director of sustainability and environmental affairs at Pacific. “We talk a lot about using resources appropriately and efficiently, eliminating the concept of waste. Not just minimizing and reducing waste, but how do we design our system so that there is no waste that comes out of it? We’re sort of mimicking nature’s model.”

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - An employee unloads cartons at the washing station at Pacific Natural Foods.On Tuesday, a group of 10 gathered at the Pacific headquarters to discuss and learn about the business’ sustainability practices. At the Sustainable Food Trade Association learning forum, the idea was not only for the participants to learn, but for them to perhaps teach the Pacific staff some best practices, as well. The group included participants from Bridges Organic Produce, Glory Bee and Organically Grown, among others. With numerous innovators in the natural food industry sitting around a table, Pacific’s team was asked plenty of questions about how and why its systems work and were always able to come up with sufficient answers.

“There’s so much hubris in natural foods. We try to have a lot of humility in what we’re doing, a lot of transparency, a lot of authenticity,” Schmick said. “Because we don’t have all the answers. We want to have an open door, and if we’re doing something that people don’t think is right, let us know. If there’s another idea, we’re all about that. It’s all about that innovation.”

In the 27 years Pacific has been in business, it’s taken consistent steps in ramping up its sustainability practices and minimizing its footprint in every way. A big piece of this has been aseptic packaging, from which much of the business practices and ideas have stemmed.

For Pacific, sustainability hasn’t just been a single-step process, but a marathon with constant analyzation and data collection. The search for ultimate sustainability ends, well, never.

In the past seven years, the company has implemented 45 different capital projects, everything from upgrading lighting for premium efficiency and adding occupancy sensors, adding variable frequency drives on motors and having set points on air compressors. These all play into energy saving, something that is both good for Pacific and for the planet. Many of these upgrades only have two- to three-year paybacks and have reduced the company’s energy consumption by nearly 30 percent.

“It’s a big capital investment, but also a significant return. This is where you’re integrating the environmental and economic component to sustainability,” Schmick said. “Through this data collection, developing these metrics, setting these goals and targets, that then drives the action, the infrastructure.”

Many of Pacific’s improvements have come from closely detailing the waste that’s being produced and then intensely brainstorming how it can be minimized as much as possible. This translates to every facet of the business. Recycling is done systematically and carefully, so that little is taken to the landfill. As much as possible, cardboard and plastic are bound and sold to companies such as Trex. For every bail of plastic Pacific sells to Trex, it earns $300 that would have been lost revenue otherwise. Through such practices, Pacific has earned $75,000 and saved $130,000 in avoided costs.

In addition to the sustainable aspects of Pacific in relation to the planet and the economy, the company is thoughtful about its social impact. It offers training and education programs for employees who want to go back to school. It also has an employee store from which workers can buy food at discounted prices. Beyond the company itself, Pacific has partnered with the Oregon Food Bank almost from the beginning and sets aside 24,000 cases of food to donate every year. The company made a conscious decision to move past donating just mislabeled or other unsellable items, and to donate products that they could be making a profit from. They’ve also started working with farmers who donate to the food bank, so that instead of fresh produce going to the bank and spoiling, Pacific turns it into nutritious soup with a two-year shelf life.

“It’s about integrating that triple bottom line: The economic, the social, the environmental,” Schmick said. “It’s not always clean, it’s not always perfect, but we feel that if with all of our decisions, we’ve got those considerations up there, at least we’re making informed decisions.”

The employees at Pacific think about everything they do. Every little thing. While giving the learning forum participants a tour of the plant, Schmick stopped without hesitation to pick up a tiny piece of cardboard and a plastic cap off the ground. Sustainability in its purist, truest form.



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