Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso uses 60,000 gallons of water daily, most of which cleans the equipment and vats that each year produce 9 million pounds of Hispanic cheese at its Kent, Illinois, plant. What happened to the water after it left the plant was important to Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso. The company wanted to make sure what they were pumping out of the plant, which is surrounded by farmland, was good for the environment.

“We wanted to take wastewater and turn it into a positive,”  said Mark Braun, chief executive officer at Nuestro Queso. “With wastewater, we can water crops and reuse that water as a natural resource. There is nothing but positives.” Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso was formed in 2009 and shortly after bought a dormant building that until 1999 had been used for cheese-making by other companies. Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso pumped more money into the building to modernize operations and to bring it up to industry standards. Proper wastewater management in the cheese-making business is always a difficult, yet vital, part of the company’s operation. The wastewater was piped into three treatment lagoons about a half-mile from the facility, where the water was then applied to the land through an irrigation system. Those three lagoons, which can store up to 2.7 million gallons of water, are no longer large enough to handle Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso’s volume so the company has undertaken this project to upgrade its wastewater treatment system.

“When you have to make lemonade, you get a bag of lemons,” Braun said “We have a system that’s old and outdated. It requires a lot of maintenance and it’s undersized. This is an investment in our future, and it’s a need. We are required to upgrade, so if we must do it, we’re going to do it right. We are going to be a model plant. That’s why we took the sustainability approach that we did.”

Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso looked to their engineering and environmental consultants at Fehr Graham, a partner since the company’s beginnings, to assist with management of environmental compliance. This included addressing the new standards and determining what improvements were needed. Deciding how the plant would manage its wastewater treatment system was a top priority.

To comply with Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, or IEPA, requirements, Fehr Graham suggested Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso add two lagoons on 20 acres just east of the plant. Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso bought the land that will be home to the new lagoons, which will hold 22 million gallons of water, nearly eight times more than that of the original lagoons.

Company leaders liked the idea of reusing the water to irrigate farm fields because it is a sustainable practice, and sustainability is one of Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso’s Core Values.

“Sustainability is also important to our customers,” Braun said. “They are vocal about their practices and want to know ours. They ask about our sustainability initiatives. It was important we embed sustainability into our culture.”

As they contemplated wastewater treatment options, company officials decided to look at their overall sustainability practices. They boosted their recycling program. They also asked ComEd, the largest utility in Illinois, to complete an energy survey, which resulted in the company switching its light bulbs throughout the Kent plant. Braun said those changes complemented the new water reuse effort.

“Nuestro Queso is being good stewards of the land,” said Ken Thompson, one of Fehr Graham’s five owners and head of the firm’s Environmental Services Division. “They chose an option that would benefit farmers and, ultimately, all of us.”

Nuestro Queso benefits from better sustainability practices and so do farmers, thanks to the nutrient value in the wastewater. Treated wastewater has nitrogen and phosphorus, which feeds crops and can reduce the amount of fertilizer needed, saving farmers money, Thompson said. It’s fair to say most people don’t think about what happens to wastewater after it leaves a manufacturer. Recycling treated wastewater is a perfect way to increase sustainability and educate on techniques used in the process.

Hispanic Cheese Makers – Nuestro Queso’s investment in its water reuse program is significant. Estimated cost of inspection, design, and construction of the wastewater treatment operation was in the seven figures.

Braun said the company expects to double production without using more water than the company did prior to the improvements, thanks to strict conservation efforts.

In the meantime, construction of the wastewater treatment lagoons started in April, creating jobs for local construction workers. 

“We’ve been deliberate about our sustainability efforts,” Braun said. “We strive to be a model company in this arena. We care about the environment, and we care about our community.”

The company hopes this project will keep us moving forward to a sustainable future.