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Adventures Outside of the Office at Organic Valley

Sustainable Materials and Technology major Emma Rioux spent her summer interning at the Sustainability Department at Organic Valley, where her mission was to contribute to the strategic plan by creating a more robust waste minimization program. She also was able to collaborate with other departments to put on events such as a company picnic and river cleanup.

My time interning for Organic Valley involved a lot of time spent towards internal research but also included external research outside of their office headquarters. I went on multiple trips to different parts of Wisconsin to see an industrial hemp field, solar field in a pollinator garden and a waste to energy plant.  Also, another important responsibility of the Sustainability Intern is to plan and prepare the Zero Waste Station at the Employee Summer Picnic.

The Sustainability Department of Organic Valley has ventured into growing hemp this year to practice methods growing it organically and research its use for protein or fiber in the future. Due to the fact that Organic Valley holds their farmers to incredibly high all-organic standards, farmers have raised concerns about the twine used in hay bales. Twine is commonly coated in petroleum for increased durability which is not organic and can be dangerous if mistakenly eaten by cows. In the future, hemp may be used to replace twine because it is a strong and durable, while also being organically grown and safe for cows to eat.

In Menominee, WI, I visited a solar field in a pollinator garden. This project is intended to encourage farmers that using land for solar fields is not a loss of land. The addition of the pollinator garden is to support the lives of pollinators in a mono-crop area where biodiversity can struggle. This area is dedicated to demonstrating the benefit of the renewable energy supplied by the solar field and the attractiveness of the pollinator garden to important pollinators, such as bees or monarch butterflies. These species increase the health of surrounding crops which is a huge benefit to nearby farmers.

Much of La Crosse, WI receives their electricity from a “Waste to Energy ” source. This process begins with sorting the waste collected exactly like a MRF operates to avoid incinerating materials such as metals. Once it is sorted, the waste is chopped into pellet sizes. The waste does not last much longer and is incinerated at extremely high temperatures. The waste is the fuel that burns to heat water into steam. The steam then turns a turbine that produces the electricity. There is concerns of air pollution around Waste to Energy plants because they burn such a high variety of materials including textiles, plastics and anything else that is regularly thrown away. However, I was relieved to see that recyclable materials are sorted out prior to the incineration so they may be reused.

The Employee Summer Picnic occurs every summer at a local park for a softball tournament and casual mingling. All staff attending are advised to bring their reusable plates, utensils and cups from home to use instead of single use items to decrease the amount of trash that is produced.  If they don’t, food is served on compostable plates and eaten with compostable utensils. The Zero Waste Station included the 3 standard bins for landfill, recycling and compost. For dinnerware, there are multiple tubs to rinse and wash. These simple, everyday actions support the zero waste goal that Organic Valley is continually working towards. I am very confident that Organic Valley will be a zero waste organization in the future because they have a dedicated staff and an even more dedicated Sustainability Department to get them there.