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#BusinessCase: Employee Innovations Help ConAgra Save 97M Gallons of Water, 15M Pounds of Packaging - and $70M photo

A growing number of companies large and small are finding they can save substantial amounts of money by optimizing various aspects of their operations, thereby proving the previously elusive business case for sustainability. The latest example: ConAgra Foods.

This week, the consumer products giant announced the winners of its 2015 Sustainable Development Awards, an internal awards program that drives and rewards imaginative approaches to sustainability that produce bottom-line business results. The 82 entries received this year collectively:

  • Eliminated 58,700 tons of waste
  • Optimized and improved packaging, using 15 million pounds less material
  • Conserved more than 97 million gallons of water
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 11,500 metric tons.

Delivering more than $70 million in savings, these projects exhibit the economic value of a company’s commitment to sustainable development. ConAgra says this year’s applications, many of which were driven by the imagination and engagement of employees, amounted to the largest single-year savings the company has seen to date.

ConAgra started the Sustainable Development Awards program in 1992 to encourage and reward employees to find ways to eliminate waste, save water and reduce energy through process innovation and engagement. Winning teams are each awarded a $5,000 grant from the ConAgra Foods Foundation to apply toward a sustainability-focused community service project in their area.

“It’s exciting because ConAgra Foods’ program continues to evolve year over year. We’re driving engagement across all levels of employees at multiple locations, while challenging teams to collaborate in new ways,” said Gail Tavill, ConAgra’s VP of Packaging and Sustainable Productivity. “One example is our focus on reducing the amount of waste generated across our operations. Getting the most out of natural resources while continuing to look for new ways to operate more sustainably is a team effort that can have a positive impact on the environment and our bottom line.”

The 2015 winners

  • Climate Change & Energy Efficiency — ConAgra Foods’ Lamb Weston Facility in Hermiston, Ore: Hermiston improved freezing capability by installing a Velocity Air Stack to better direct airflow in its freeze tunnel. The project resulted in the elimination of a 500-horsepower compressor, reducing electricity use by 4.3 percent.
  • Water Resources: Conservation & Wastewater Management — ConAgra Foods’ Grocery Facility in Helm, Calif: Faced with one of California’s most severe droughts on record, Helm focused their attention on reducing fresh water use during fresh pack of its Hunt’s brand canned tomatoes. By maximizing the use of water reclaimed from tomatoes, the facility reduced fresh water use by over 40 percent, conserving 22 million gallons.
  • Solid Waste Reduction & Recycling — ConAgra Foods’ Lamb Weston Potato Facility in Twin Falls, Idaho: Twin Falls explored opportunities to minimize frozen waste while maintaining product quality, testing frozen grader screens with fewer holes in their screening process. Installation of screens with 66 percent fewer holes provided the same quality product while eliminating over 1,000 tons of potato waste.
  • Sustainable Business Innovation — ConAgra Foods’ Lamb Weston Meijer Potato Facility in Bergen op Zoom, Netherlands: After a successful pilot test, Bergen op Zoom applied a new technology to fundamentally change how potatoes are preheated in preparation for cutting. This technology reduced water use by 18.5 million gallons, increased frozen recovery by 1 percent, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by over 900 metric tons.
  • Award of Excellence — ConAgra Foods’ Snack Facility in Waterloo, Iowa: Waterloo previously landfilled packaged pudding produced during flavor changeovers, sending high-quality pudding — albeit uniquely flavored — to waste. This project eliminated over 1,000 tons of packaged food waste by successfully identifying a market for a blended pudding SKU.