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Clover Sonoma remade the milk carton to help reduce greenhouse gases

Trying to combat climate change, Clover Sonoma is casting a wide net throughout its operations to curb greenhouse gases. That includes the dumpster.

The Petaluma-based dairy processor has for years worked to improve its environmental stewardship. The effort took on even greater importance since 2016 when it became a B Corporation. Such companies are graded on their earth friendly measures, treatment of workers, overall relationship with the local community and business governance.

For Clover, the range of actions include working with the 30 dairies that send their milk to the processor to generate products from organic milk to cream cheese to butter. In addition, a new carbon farming test project is set to begin later this year.

The collaboration with the dairy farmers makes sense because the family-owned company found that about two-thirds of its overall greenhouse gas emissions are tied to farming practices, said Kristal Corson, chief revenue officer of the regional dairy powerhouse with about 260 employees and $235 million in annual revenue the past year.

“In addition to sort of helping farms figure out ways they can be more sustainable and doing those different efforts, we've also been trying to attack it on the packaging,” Corson said.

Clover Sonoma’s cartons, containers and wrappings are the second-largest source of its greenhouse gases at about 12%. That even outpaces transportation of milk with delivery trucks, which contribute an estimated 7% of emissions.

The spotlight on packaging led Clover to a notable achievement last summer, when it unveiled the first milk carton in the United States made from renewable sources. While it may not go back to the old days of the milkman picking up the used glass bottles in exchange for new ones, Clover intends to make a big environmental contribution by incorporating the new product design into all of its milk cartons by 2025.

“It’s all going to be about packaging now,” said Marcus Benedetti, chairman and CEO of Clover Sonoma, founded almost 44 years ago by his grandfather and other partners. “People talk a lot of about energy and carbon emissions, but it’s also what goes into the landfill and what can and cannot be recycled.”

The new carton uses sugar cane in its bioethanol base for the lining inside and outside of the paperboard, rather than using petroleum-based products. Clover’s organic half-gallon milk cartons were the first product to switch to the new carton. The sustainable carton has a 16% smaller carbon footprint than traditional ones because sugar cane captures carbon dioxide in the air as it grows on a farm.

The new carton costs more than traditional ones, but Clover Sonoma isn’t passing costs along to consumers. The goal is for other dairy companies to adopt better packaging standards so that more buying power will lower the cost of the items in the future, Corson said. The company took a similar stance years ago when it wanted its farmers not to use the artificial growth hormone for their animals. That move later paid dividends in consumer loyalty after other processors did the same.

“Our hope is that more companies will do this,” she said, of the carton switch. “We definitely try to be a leader within the dairy and food world.”

The sustainability efforts come as Clover continues to navigate a rapidly changing market in which consumers are looking for nongenetically modified and organic products. It also is grappling with a trend of more consumers looking for nondairy vegan items made by companies like Miyoko’s Creamery in Petaluma.

In response to such changes, Bennedetti said Clover eventually will launch “truly innovative products that don’t exist in groceries yet,” but he declined to elaborate in a recent interview.

The company continues working on a target date to be carbon neutral, the CEO said. There is increasing pressure on companies since California has set a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045, and more businesses are taking such a pledge. The Biden administration intends to have the Securities and Exchange Commission issue a rule that will force publicly traded companies to disclose climate risks in their own operations.

Clover Sonoma’s sustainability movement also includes a project with the Perucchi dairy in Bodega. The Perucchi family will later this year have compost placed over 25 acres of its pasture instead of using the manure it typically would spread. The effort is intended to jump-start the soil biology and reduce greenhouse gases. With the switch, it is expected that 810 tons of atmospheric carbon will be converted into healthy soil carbon for the future.

San Francisco nonprofit Zero Foodprint is working with the Perucchi family on the project, and Clover has donated $25,000.

“It’s pretty expensive to do,” said Steve Perucchi, who operates his family’s dairy. “You kind of need another party.”

There are other benefits as well, said Karen Leibowitz, executive director for Zero Foodprint. The transition to compost makes the soil healthier. It also holds more water that is beneficial during drought conditions and it is more fire resistant. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to get the cost down, so it is economically feasible for farmers to adopt the compost practice on a broad basis, she said.

“Once they have transitioned into regenerative practices, then the healthy soil is correlated with profitability,” Leibowitz said. “It’s good for the farmer, it’s good for the cattle, it’s good for the ecosystem and climate resilience.”

Dealing with plastics in dairy production is also a priority at Clover Sonoma. For example, the company uses a plastic baler at its processing plant. That device can recycle 850 pounds of plastic a week, resulting in a total of 91,754 recycled pieces of plastic in 2020.

“It allows you to get to a place that you can deal with a better way,” Corson said of the baler.

The company’s sustainability campaign extends to consumers. Clover Sonoma worked with Recology waste service on a video to instruct customers to rinse out milk cartons before placing them in recycling bins and dry them to cut down on contamination.

“We're definitely trying to get that word out and you know the milk carton has always been a good vehicle for educating,” Corson said, of labels that note rinsing and recycling.

Even with good intentions, there are challenges. Marin Sanitary Service noted on its website that it did not have the capabilities now to recycle the new Clover Sonoma cartons through its waste management system, so they must go to the landfill. Recology can recycle the cartons, however.

The environmental packaging effort for milk cartons will follow with other Clover products such as the traditional plastic gallon of milk container. That’s expected to be followed by yogurt in a multistep process for the company.

Besides contributing to preserving the environment, Clover is working with its dairy farmers on adhering to the latest animal welfare standards set by the American Humane Association.

The goal at Clover Sonoma is to keep building on many previous endeavors, especially as more focus gets placed on what companies are doing to combat global warming, Benedetti said.

“Trust takes generations to build,” he said. “It can’t be gained in five minutes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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