Consumer goods giant Unilever today announced it has achieved a key sustainability target of sending zero non-hazardous* waste to landfill from its global factory network. The company says the milestone not only represents a significant step towards its ambition to double its size while reducing its environmental impact, the effort has eliminated more than €200m in costs and created hundreds of jobs – once again proving the business case for sweeping sustainability initiatives.
Believed to be a global first for delivering zero waste on this scale, more than 240 factories in 67 countries making products for brands such as Magnum, Knorr, Dove and Domestos have now eliminated landfill waste.
“Reaching this landmark is the result of a huge mindset shift throughout our organization and a great example of Unilever driving sustainable business growth,” said Pier Luigi Sigismondi, Unilever’s Chief Supply Chain Officer. “Thousands of employees — our ‘zero-makers’ — from across the business have developed some really innovative solutions to eliminate waste. I am incredibly proud of what we and our partners have achieved.
“However, we cannot stop here. Our focus now is on becoming a zero-waste company and working towards a zero-waste value chain by encouraging our suppliers and customers to join us on this mission. We are also committed to developing an open-source approach and sharing our ‘zero waste framework’ and experience with other organizations to drive global change.”
To achieve zero-waste-to-landfill Unilever adopted the four ‘R’ approach — reducing waste at source, then reusing, recovering or recycling any non-hazardous waste that remains. It has meant reconsidering every material that is consumed in a factory — from reusing packing materials from supplier deliveries to food waste from staff cafeterias.
While reducing waste at source remains the top priority, Unilever and its project partners also worked to find creative uses for any remaining waste. For example:
- In Cote D’Ivoire, waste has been turned into low-cost building materials.
- In Egypt, the local team launched a program that enables disabled employees to earn extra income by recycling waste material from Unilever’s production lines (see a TED talk from Rania Bahaa, an Environmental Specialist at Unilever Mashreq in Egypt, about the initiative).
- In Mangalore, India, the green team has created its own compost to grow vegetables such as pumpkins, green chilies and lemons. The excess compost is used by the wider community and distributed to the local orphanage and homeless shelters.
- The cement industry is responsible for 6 percent of global CO2 emissions. While it has traditionally relied heavily on fossil fuels, in recent years the industry has invested in technology that allows it to burn non-fossil fuels. So instead of burning gas or coal during the cement-making process, factory waste for which there is no local recycling option (in Indonesia, for example) is used to provide energy in the cement-making process.
- In China, waste from Hefei, Unilever’s largest factory in Asia, is now also used in the manufacture of bricks and paving.
Unilever has built a strong track record on designing out waste from factories since 2012 — when zero waste was added as a Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) target. The company says it has focused on embedding a “zero-waste mindset” to rapidly accelerate the speed of the global rollout program, increase resource resilience and reach the USLP target well ahead of its 2020 goal.
Speaking of proving the business case, last month Procter & Gamble’s 16th annual sustainability report revealed how the CPG giant exceeded two of its 2020 goals six years ahead of schedule: 54 percent of its virgin wood fiber is now FSC-certified (the goal was 40 percent), and its waste to landfill has already been reduced to 0.4 percent — P&G says the latter program alone has created $1.6 billion in value over a five-year period.
*Hazardous waste represents a very small percentage of total factory waste — the types of materials that make up hazardous waste vary due to differing local waste regulations around the world.