A tasty and crunchy delight turns guilt free with waste-free production

Story and Photos by Cynthia Carson

Route 11 recycles everything, “even the dirt off of the potatoes,” says Route 11 Chip president Sarah Cohen. Route 11 Chips has been in business for more than 20 years. Along with making a quality potato chip product, they also strive to take responsibility for the waste they produce.

Cohen and vice president Michael Connelly have been diligently working to find more ways to cut down on waste and energy usage. After the chip production process, the main byproduct is the peelings from the potatoes. They used to throw a combination of potato peelings, water and rejected chips into the dumpster. Now they are helping the environment and a local farmer, instead of throwing it all into a landfill.

“He comes out every evening like clockwork and loads them up, takes them out and feeds [the cattle],” Connelly explains. Ken and Kent Burch own a farm down the road from the production plant and they benefit from the Route 11 waste. “The cattle liked them from day one. They just clean them up. You put them on the ground or in a feed trough and they eat them till they’re gone, they love them,” Ken Burch says. The Route 11 cows love eating the chip byproducts.

Kent Burch says, “Sometimes we get the Mama Zuma’s, the real spicy ones. It was funny the first time they ever had them. They walked up to them and took a big ole bite and then they were like “chomp chomp chomp,” they stopped, it was nothing but hot. But they just went back to eating them.”

Before Route 11 Chips found the Burch farm and their cattle, their waste management bills were around $1,300 a month and now they are down to $150. The company has successfully managed to bring down their waste to one dumpster pick-up every month. “If we get down much lower, we are actually going to get rid of the dumpster,” Connelly says. The potato peelings aren’t the only waste Route 11 produces. The potatoes are cooked in high-oleic sunflower oil that comes in massive plastic “bladders” surrounded on all sides by five to six layers of cardboard.

Instead of throwing the pounds and pounds of cardboard out, they give it to the local high school’s football team to recycle. The team takes it to the local county recycle center and the booster club receives half of the value. “We could sell it back, but it’s just as easy,” Connelly says. “It’s a goodwill builder.” Route 11 Chips has not only limited its waste, they have also found many ways to limit energy usage as well. In 2008, when Route 11 Chips moved, Cohen and Connelly worked to make the factory as self-sufficient as possible.

“The way it’s laid out is in a straight line. That helps the motors operate more efficiently because they are not pushing things in circles,” says Cohen. With a straight-line production process, there is little energy needed to push the product from raw, unpeeled potatoes to freshly cooked chips in a bag. The owners have put a lot of thought into saving energy at the factory. “We thought if we didn’t put a roof that absorbed a lot of energy from the sun that it would keep us kind of neutral,” Connelly says. The roof keeps the building cool in the summer.

The kitchen has a heat exchange that uses the hot air coming from the oil to heat the kitchen. Therefore they save energy by using the heat for more than just the oil. “We were able to put some warm air in into the kitchen in the winter to keep it at a workable temperature without running a heater,” Connelly says.” The building has large windows to let in as much natural light as possible. The kitchen lights have a timer to come on just as the sun is setting. “Every little thing adds up,” Cohen says. Connelly modified a piece of the production line equipment and after six months, it now allows dirt to fall out rather than combining with the water. “It’s just dirt. Instead of putting it in the trash can, we put it on the pile and we do use it. I’ve taken it to my house to fill in holes.”

Each member of the 32-member staff uses one paper towel after washing their hands. They recycle cans and bottles. “All the organic stuff in the kitchen gets scraped into a bucket with a sealed lid on it.” “It’s the typical things your parents tell you around the house but we’re just trying to do it on a bigger scale.” Route 11 has taken simple ideas and turned them into a success. “We can’t be perfect. We can’t be a net-zero impact. But while we’re making a living and providing a lively hood and a fun product and a healthier product, we are trying to create as little damage as possible in the process,” Cohen says. “So for me, I feel like it’s taking responsibility, we are stewards of trying to not mess things up more.”