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Meat and poultry processing plants provide millions of Americans with the food and animal products they need on a regular basis. But the wastewater these plants produce can be problematic. In this article, we are looking at why this is such a problem and examining the key challenges and solutions.

At Chemtech, we believe that the right products and solutions can make a real difference for our industrial customers, and the meat and poultry industry is certainly no exception. Deploying spill containment berms or expanding the scope of wastewater clarifiers can help to make meat and poultry plants more cost-effective and more environmentally friendly. Read on to discover more.

The Problem with Meat and Poultry Wastewater

All industries produce wastewater of some kind, but the nature of this wastewater will differ according to the scale of the process and the chemicals involved. Some believe that meat and poultry operations are among the biggest wastewater polluters in the country, perhaps even more so than oil and gas facilities, mines, and chemical plants, according to some metrics.

So why is this exactly? Well, two reasons. One: these operations tend to use vast amounts of water and so produce effluent at a high volume. Two: the waste products that are carried within the effluent include high levels of harmful chemicals, which can wreak havoc on the local environment and ecosystem.

Slaughterhouses, in particular, have been singled out as key areas of concern, but any facility that processes and packages meat or other animal products can put ecosystems at risk. This industry discharges large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into the local water table, resulting in significant growth of toxic algae. In areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, toxic algal growth — including Karenia brevis, or red tide, among other forms — caused by slaughterhouses and similar facilities has created large-scale dead zones where plant and animal species simply cannot survive.

Data released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) back in 2015 found that meat and poultry facilities were the greatest sources of nitrogen pollution in the country. In addition to this, the data showed that this industry contributed 14% of all the phosphorus discharged into the water table by American industries.

Four years later, the situation had not improved. In 2019, 28 million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus were discharged directly into rivers and streams across the country. While treatment can help reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, this will be ineffective if wastewater bypasses the pre-treatment and treatment phases. This is a significant risk when stormwater and spillage events occur on and around meat and poultry processing facilities.

In areas with heavily developed meat and poultry processing industries, the risk appears to be higher. The Pee Dee watershed in South Carolina, for instance, contains 11 slaughterhouses — 1.15 million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous were reported in Pee Dee in 2021. The Missouri-Little Sioux watershed in Minnesota and Iowa is home to 14 slaughterhouses, and 1.35 million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants were reported here. This is in contrast to the Upper White watershed in Indiana, with its four slaughterhouses and 63,484 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus, or Lower Mississippi-St. Francis in Arkansas and Missouri, where a single slaughterhouse released just 706 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus.

The Key Wastewater Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Within the boundaries of the Susquehanna watershed in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland, there are 11 slaughterhouses — the same number as in Pee Dee, South Carolina. However, Susquehanna authorities reported 572,775 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous pollutants in 2021, around half of that reported in Pee Dee.

What is causing this disparity? On the one hand, there could be reporting discrepancies — different states and localities may have their own reporting protocols. On the other hand, this could tell us that the problem is, in fact, manageable — there are viable solutions to meat and poultry wastewater challenges for facility managers who adopt the right approach. Let’s take a look at some of the key challenges and how to solve them.

Challenge #1: Pre-Treatment Failures

Certain industries need to carry out pre-treatment of wastewater in clarifiers and other on-site infrastructure before this effluent is released into publicly owned treatment works (POTWs). While meat and poultry enterprises are not mentioned specifically in the EPA’s guidelines, the nature of the effluent means these industries will also need to pre-treat their effluent. If this pre-treatment is not sufficient to remove pollutants, problems can begin to arise.

The Solution

Adding digesters to the pre-treatment mix can increase the efficacy of the process. Chemtech products like CHM205 are designed with this in mind and can also accelerate the process and reduce manual labor at the same time.

Challenge #2: Volumes Are Too High

In some cases, the volume of wastewater produced by processing plants and slaughterhouses is simply too high. This can reduce the efficacy of the treatment and can result in fines and penalties if the effluent volume exceeds the EPA’s permit level.

The Solution

Plant owners should conduct an audit of water usage and consider how this can be reduced. Once water usage has been brought down to its minimum level, teams can reappraise their water pre-treatment solutions. It may be necessary to invest in wastewater clarifiers with greater capacity to meet the demands of the plant. Water reuse and recycling can also be deployed to reduce the volume of effluent released to POTWs.

Challenge #3: Wastewater Bypasses Treatment Infrastructure

As mentioned above, storms and spillages can cause harmful chemicals and substances to be released directly into local water systems.

The Solution

Chemtech products like spill containment berms and storm drain covers provide additional protection on-site. Using these solutions can help prevent pollutants and contaminants from entering the water table.

Solving Meat and Poultry Wastewater Challenges

Meat and poultry wastewater can cause significant contamination, but the figures suggest that appropriate measures can minimize the level of pollution. Here at Chemtech, we want to provide our customers with solutions that can optimize their procedures and reduce their impact on the environment. Take a look at our Chemtech product pages to find the wastewater treatment solutions you need, or reach out to our team to discover more.