New Zealand dairy co-op shows how recycled waste can make fields green

Agricultural co-ops are leading the way in sustainable farming, with groundbreaking new technology that turns waste materials into fertiliser. The world’s largest exporter of dairy products, New Zealand’s...

Agricultural co-ops are leading the way in sustainable farming, with groundbreaking new technology that turns waste materials into fertiliser.

The world’s largest exporter of dairy products, New Zealand’s Fonterra Co-operative, is one of these pioneers. It has developed a way of recycling waste materials into a ‘super-fertiliser’ which is making pastures flourish.

Fonterra – best known in Britain for Anchor Butter – has been turning its attention to environmental sustainability in recent years.

The co-op formed in 2001 to represent the interests of over 10,500 farmers – about 95% of New Zealand’s dairy farmers.

Since then, the co-operative has extended its reach to over 140 countries worldwide, producing more than two million tonnes of dairy ingredients every day – of which 95% are exported.

This follows decades of readjustment for New Zealand’s dairy industry. Before the UK joined the EU, it was New Zealand’s biggest export customer, with its butter and cheese a mainstay of millions of British households.

But when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973 and signed up to different trade agreements and quotas on the European mainland, New Zealand farmers lost much of their core business and were forced to find new markets and products.

Traditional markets in butter and cheese are still a mainstay of the industry but diversification into products like raw milk powders, formula milk and bone nutrition products aimed at the Asian market has turned Fonterra into a global company – with more than a third of its 16,500 employees working outside New Zealand.

Fonterra products include Anchor butter (Bob Peters/Flickr)
Fonterra products include Anchor butter (Bob Peters/Flickr)

In recent years Fonterra has seriously focused on sustainability issues with a commitment to cutting waste and energy emissions.

One of its most recent initiatives is new wastewater treatment technology, which is being hailed as a major advance in maximising resources for a growing global customer base.

New Zealand’s dairy industry dates back to the early 19th century, when cattle were imported by early settlers. Its first dairy co-op  – the Otago Peninsula Cheese Factory – was created in 1871. Its success led to more than 400 co-ops being established throughout the country and new advances in refrigeration handed those early pioneers the chance to compete in world markets.

In the 1960s, the consolidation of smaller co-ops for efficiency had reduced that number to 168. By 1996 there were just 12 large co-operatives and the 1990s also saw the threat of deregulation by the government. The industry decided its best choice for the future was a single integrated
co-operative to capitalise on efficiencies and maximise markets.

At Fonterra’s Edendale site in South Island – now the largest raw milk processing plant in the world – dairy waste is being turned into a fertiliser created from the microbial treatment of wastewater.

Tests show that the treatment creates some of the most nutrient rich dairy-derived fertiliser in the country, and farmers are queuing to buy the product.

Fonterra’s environmental manager Ian Goldschmidt said: “The role of sustainability in food production is becoming increasingly important as we look for new ways to feed the growing global population, and Fonterra is committed to becoming a leader in this space.

“The quality of the product has seen demand take off and farmers are coming to us directly to put their names on the list.

New Zealand’s dairy industry has been diversifying since the 1970s (Image: Dave Young/Flickr)
New Zealand’s dairy industry has been diversifying since the 1970s (Image: Dave Young/Flickr)

“Plants like Edendale are part of a programme of investment aimed at seeing Fonterra leading global industry water standards, ensuring our outputs have good environmental outcomes.

“Our manufacturing process produces wastewater that contains dairy solids. We use microbes to consume those solids, which in turn produce a dense liquid. Thanks to new technology in the plant, we are now able to decant that liquid into a rich fertiliser that is producing exceptional results on pasture.”

The sophisticated plant technology – which is also being used at Fonterra’s Stirling, Pahiatua and Lichfield sites – is helping deliver on the co-operative’s sustainability commitments.

The fertiliser is one of three products made at the wastewater plant which benefit local farmers. Fonterra’s researchers are also using new tech to turn another by-product into stock food and the increased capacity of new wastewater storage ponds enables the co-operative to return as much water as possible to the land through irrigation.

Mr Goldschmidt said: “Dairy sets the gold standard for nutrition and we see a growing global population wanting the best of what we can offer.

“We have introduced new guidelines across the business around sustainable wastewater treatment and disposal that, in many cases, will see our environmental standards far exceed what is required by regulation.

“With generations of expertise behind us, we’ve grown to be at the forefront of dairy innovation providing more value to consumers and we hope we will be for the generations to come.

“Our name says it all. Fonterra means ‘spring from the land’ which is where it all begins and where our future lies.”

Similar initiatives are meeting success elsewhere in the world. Boston-based CERO – Co-operative Energy Recycling and Organics – shows that even smaller-scale initiatives on food waste can make a real impact in changing lifestyles.

We have introduced new guidelines across the business around sustainable wastewater treatment and disposal that, in many cases, will see our environmental standards far exceed what is required by regulation

The worker co-op, one of only 20 in Massachusetts, has its roots in the Boston Workers Alliance, founded to help low-income residents find employment opportunities.

Their first venture, Roxbury Green Power, converted waste oil from restaurant fryers into vegetable oil-based fuel. But with tight competition from larger commercial firms, they launched CERO in 2012 and opted for the compost business.

Every day, CERO trucks pick up food scraps from the restaurants, hospitals, grocers and schools which pay them for disposing of organic waste. So far, they have 20 clients and the list is growing with the recent purchase of three new trucks.

The food waste is taken to a farm in South Hamilton on the outskirts of the city. There, microbes break down waste materials into compost. After a year of microbial digestion, the CERO trucks return to the farm, load up with compost and return it to the five community-based farms run by Alternatives for Community and Environment, a not-for-profit organisation which works for disadvantaged communities.

These supply consumers with around 2,000 pounds of produce, distributed among the community members who grow them as well as to local restaurants and cafés.

CERO now plans an anaerobic composting facility – where composting happens in sealed containers – to process more waste.

Spokeswoman Maya Gaul  said: “By having workers in the role of owners, we’re bringing down the antiquated structure where a few people make decisions for the many, We’re asking people to educate themselves and determine their own fate. I think that’s really cool.”

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