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In conversation with… Paulo de Waal, director of Zoogamma

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Sustainability: “The Netherlands started earlier, but Italy has now caught up.”

Located on the Po plain in northern Italy, the home of the world-famous Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano, are the three branches of Zoogamma. That’s no coincidence. Whey, a residual waste flow from the production of cheese, forms the basis for the calf milk powders, breeding milk and dairy raw materials produced by the company, a subsidiary of VanDrie. In addition, Zoogamma has its own calf husbandries as well as contracts with veal farmers. Paulo de Waal, the director of Zoogamma, talks about the differences between Italy and the Netherlands and the opportunities that sustainable and circular business offer.

First of all, northern Italy was hit hard by the coronavirus in March last year. How did you experience that?

De Waal: “It was an uncertain time for Zoogamma because of the many infections in our region. We acted immediately and took various measures such as using a face mask, keeping our distance and the people who could work from home, were sent home. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has left its mark; ten of our fifty employees in Casalbuttano became infected. Two of them became seriously ill, one of whom died. Our other colleague fortunately recovered, but struggled with his health for a long time.”

That must have been difficult. What did this mean for the daily activities of Zoogamma?

De Waal: “In addition to the personal loss, everyday production was also under pressure. Zoogamma is an important link in several chains. Fifty percent of our calf milk powders, for example, go by train to the VanDrie subsidiaries Tentego and Navobi in the Netherlands. About 25 percent ends up at Melkweg, also in the Netherlands. They resell the high-quality raw materials to countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. The remaining 25 percent is destined for our own calf farms or for other Italian compound feed companies. Shutting down our production process therefore has far-reaching consequences for our VanDrie subsidiaries and for other companies in the chain. Fortunately, despite a downscaling of our production, we were able to continue producing during the entire period.”

As a link in a chain of companies, Zoogamma is also dependent on others. Which raw materials are essential for your products and where do they come from?

De Waal: “Milk whey is by far the most important raw material for our products. We produce around 140,000 tonnes of whey powder from it every year, which is used for our calf milk powders, breeding milk and dairy raw materials. Whey is a residual product from cheese makers and processors. Most of our raw materials come directly from producers in our area, such as the area around Brescia, Verona, Milan and Modena.”

Zoogamma has depended on other people's residual waste flows since day one. To get the most out of it, we have always been very economical with raw materials.

That sounds very responsible. Do you see Zoogamma as a sustainable enterprise?

De Waal: “Zoogamma has depended on other people's residual waste flows since day one. To get the most out of it, we have always been very economical with raw materials. Because drying whey in our drying towers requires a lot of energy, we’ve taken energy saving into account in the design. Our two cogeneration plants, for example, supply heat and energy at the same time. In addition, the hot water released during the drying process is collected and reused to preheat the air for a subsequent process. The stalls for our calves are fitted with solar panels and, in good weather (and lots of sunshine), operate for about nine months on reduced mains power. Most international transport of whey is by rail and through fixed terminals. That, too, reduces the carbon footprint.”

In the Netherlands, we think we are leading the way in sustainability. How is sustainability regarded in Italy?

De Waal: “The Netherlands may have started preserving the environment a little earlier, but Italy has done a lot of catching up since then. There is a growing demand among Italian consumers for local products. Milk from Italy, for example, is valued more highly than milk from abroad. You also read in the media and see in television advertisements that the carbon footprint of products is becoming a more important distinguishing feature. Italian food companies are therefore increasingly taking responsibility and actively communicating about sustainability. And politics is changing too; the European Union is making more and more funds available for the sustainable development of commodities such as solar energy and biogas. That makes sustainable business highly promising in Italy as well.”

Whereas sustainability relates to people, planet and economy, circularity focuses on the cycle of raw materials. In what way is Zoogamma working on circularity?

De Waal: “We receive whey from dairy and cheese producers in the area such as Granarolo and Parmalat. The fact that they are monetising their residual waste flow means that most of our operation is in fact already circular. In addition to whey, we also take back dairy and cheese products that are no longer fit for human consumption. We process these into high-quality dairy raw materials for feed. We are always looking for new opportunities to make our raw materials more sustainable. With that in mind, the contacts with our suppliers and customers are very important. For example, a supplier of residual waste flows of milk recently asked me to return the plastics that remain after processing the milk so that they can recycle them to produce their own 'new' milk bottles. Precisely because the lines of communication are short and because of our many years of cooperation, there is a lot of mutual trust and we are able to respond quickly to such a request. In this way, we can come up with new circular solutions together and work on closing cycles.”

We are always looking for new opportunities to make our raw materials more sustainable.

Which residual waste flows that arise during the Zoogamma production process can be of value to others? 

De Waal: “The sludge left over from the production from our dairy installation, together with the residues from the first phase of our whey processing, forms a raw material for the generation of biogas and bio-energy. We currently supply this to third parties, but in the future I would like to make this valorise that residue flow myself. Together with the VanDrie Group, we are looking into the possibilities of adding this link to our chain as well.”

In what way do responsible production and the reduction of the company’s climate impact form part of the future of Zoogamma?

De Waal: “The dairy and cheese sector in Italy is growing and that means more whey for Zoogamma, but also more calves to feed. The biggest challenge for us is therefore to grow in a sustainable way. European support packages such as Next Generation Italia, a grant for sustainable innovation, help us to buy biogas installations, solar panels and the installations for reusing water streams so that our footprint is reduced and we can operate fully independently. I also see an opportunity to work with the R&D department of the VanDrie Group to research new opportunities in the composition of our products that will contribute to making our chain even more sustainable.”