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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Expertise on tap

May 3, 2010

Semi on a hydraulic lift.

The Northern Star potato processing facility is one of many companies to benefit from the University's MnTAP program.

Photo by Nicole Holdorph

A case study in how the University's MnTAP program helps local companies

By Deane Morrison

It takes a lot of water to peel, cook, and process potatoes. And in August 2006 a Minneapolis potato processing facility, Northern Star Co., was using a lot more than it wanted to.

Every three years, the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services (MCES)—an arm of the governing board for the Twin Cities metro area—reviews companies' water usage and adjusts consumption and discharge fees.

"We were allowed to discharge 450,000 gallons a day," says Shane Menefee, corporate environmental director for Michael Foods, Northern Star's parent company. That was the volume the company had been paying for. But after an internal assessment, "I saw it was closer to 600,000 gallons."

Following a review in February 2007, MCES told Northern Star it must reduce usage in the next year or face an extra $416,000 charge. But by that time Menefee had contacted MnTAP, the University's Minnesota Technical Assistance Program, and enlisted food processing specialist John Polanski to help Northern Star cut its water use.

MnTAP provides experts who help companies facing energy use, waste, and other environmental problems. Menefee, who had already had good experiences with MnTAP, wanted to take a team approach that would lead to long-term reductions in water usage.

And Polanski was just the one for the job.

Running start

At Northern Star, Menefee assembled a 12-person water conservation team, provided it with financial resources, and, with facilitator Polanski, made sure it stayed on track.

"John brought a lot of technical expertise, knowledge of technical fixes, and team-building experience," says Menefee. "Without him, we wouldn't have started out as fast nor as successfully. Because we started off fast and found a lot of ways to save water early on, it bred a desire in people to do more because they knew more successes were to come."

Bucket brigade

With at least 600,000 pounds of potatoes to process into refrigerated products every day, Northern Star had its work cut out for it. The key to success was involving all 250 employees in looking for ways to save water.

Each team member received a kit containing a two-gallon bucket, a stopwatch, and blue slips. Employees who found water leaks or overuse noted it on a slip and gave it to a team member.

Members then placed their buckets below leaks. Using the stopwatch to record the fill time for the buckets, they calculated the rates of water loss. The data allowed the team to identify the most pressing problems.

As a result, "We put a lot of engineering controls in, but the biggest reduction was from employees," says Menefee. "For example, they reported leaks, shut things off when not using them, and used shovels and squeegees instead of hoses to clean up potato peels and scraps."

The payoff was substantial. Northern Star reduced its water use to about 425,000 gallons a day and avoided the $416,000 charge. But the benefits go way beyond that. Michael Foods noted how well a team approach worked and has formed similar teams in other facilities to examine waste issues.

And that's no small potatoes.

Tags: Academic Health Center

Looking for technical assistance? Read more about MnTAP.

Here's an overview of how MnTAP helped companies in 2009.

For related services, check out the University's Office of Business Relations.