Greek yogurt is a booming $2 billion a year industry that produces tons of waste. Greek yogurt companies, food scientists, and state government officials are scrambling to figure out uses for this waste that can make a profit.
In upstate New York, two trucks a day, seven days a week arrive at Neil Rejman’s dairy farm from Chobani with 8,000 gallons of acid whey, a byproduct of Greek yogurt.
The straining process that gives Greek yogurt its high protein content and lush mouthfeel creates acid whey, resulting in a byproduct as acidic as orange juice. Most of it is water with five to eight percent other materials such as lactose (milk sugar), some minerals and a very small amount of proteins.
For every four ounces of milk, Chobani can only produce one ounce of creamy Greek yogurt. The remainder, acid whey, is illegal to dump because its decomposition is toxic to the natural environment, robbing oxygen from streams and rivers. If it can’t be used, it must be transported to approved water filtration facilities.
The scale of the problem—or opportunity, depending on who you ask—is daunting. The Greek yogurt market has become one of the biggest success stories in the food industry with production in New York, alone, nearly tripling from 2007 to 2013. New plants continue to open all over the country adding to the waste stream.
Chobani is so desperate to get rid of their whey that they pay farmers like Rejman to take it off their hands.
Rejman, a third-generation dairy farmer with a Cornell animal science degree, mixes it with silage to feed his 3,300 cows, combines it with manure in a giant pit to fertilize his fields and converts it into biogas to make electricity for his farm and others.
There are challenges to integrating acid whey into the workings of a farm like when dried silage to feed the cows gets mixed with the watery, sugary whey it quickly becomes an unmanageable slop. Due to the high sugar content of the whey, Rejman says its like feeding cows candy bars — they really like it but too much is bad for their digestive systems so it only makes a small dent in the waste problem.
Policy makers in Albany are also interested in addressing this issue. The first-ever Yogurt Summit was convened in 2012 by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and attended by state and industry officials who are trying to deal with the ocean of whey that Greek yogurt is producing. They are racing to find solutions, some of the most promising of which are listed below.
Attendees like, Dave Barbano, a dairy scientist at Cornell, specializes in filtration methods for the separation and recovery of protein. The tiny amount of protein in acid whey might be usable as an infant formula ingredient if he can figure out how to extract it in a cost-effective way.
In a related part of the dairy industry, cheese-makers developed a lucrative business selling their byproduct, sweet whey, as body-building supplements and food ingredients. Sweet whey is more valuable than acid whey because it has a lot more protein and its easier to handle due to its lower acidity. The Greek yogurt industry would welcome a similar outcome.
Scientists from the Center for Dairy Research @ University of Wisconsin-Madison have been experimenting on how to get edible-grade lactose out of acid whey. Dean Sommer, a food technologist at the center thinks that many companies are already considering building plants to convert acid whey into lactose. The industry-financed research is proprietary so the conversion process is not being shared.
Neil Rejman, an Upstate New York dairy farmer, stands before a lagoon of manure mixed with acid whey. This slurry has passed through a system called an ‘anaerobic digester,’ which converted some of it into electricity.
What a smell! Acid whey mixed with the large amount of cow manure Rejman’s farm produces creates a river of shit that flows into an underground concrete tank known as an anaerobic digester. Here the fetid mixture percolates, gets heated up and keeps for 20 days so the bacteria can break up the lactose and release the methane. The methane is fed into generators to power the farm and sell to the local utilities. Odor control was one of the benefits that Rejman found by converting acid whey into methane. The processed manure smells a lot less.
Only 20 of New York’s 5,200 dairy farms are operating with digesters because the $4.5 million setup cost is out of reach for most farmers. Even with the Rejman’s $1 million state subsidy, this huge issue needs many simultaneous solutions to make a dent in the problem, according to Curt Gooch, a waste management engineer at Cornell.
If and when any of the big yogurt companies come up with a better whey, they’re being guarded and the tidal wave of acid whey is not slowing down. As one producer said at New York’s Yogurt Summit: “If we can figure out how to handle acid whey, we’ll become heroes.”
How You Can Help:
- Regular yogurt costs a lot less and has fewer calories!
- Avoid single serving yogurt containers that add even more to the waste stream.
- Consider a healthy environment while you make a healthy body.
Until next week,