Today Procter and Gamble announced the consumer packaged goods giant has reached a new zero-waste milestone. As is the case with other companies, P&G has set many aggressive goals on the supply chain, social sustainability, waste, water and energy fronts as 2020 approaches. Now P&G has 48 zero-waste factories, or 25 percent of the company’s total manufacturing centers worldwide. Another 20 or so sites are also on the cusp of being qualified as zero waste. According to P&G’s standards, these are sites that prevent any manufacturing waste from ending up in a landfill–save hazardous materials governed by local regulations.
The next seven years will be frantic for P&G’s operations as the company scrambles to meet this goal. Nevertheless, the maker of iconic products such as Pampers, Charmin and Iams pet food is on its way. During a telephone interview last week with Forbes McDougall, P&G’s United Kingdom-based “Zero Waste to Landfill Leader,” we discussed the company’s, and his, long road to becoming a less wasteful and more sustainable company, successes, and of course, the challenges.
McDougall joined P&G 15 years ago. An environmental engineer by trade, one of the many projects with which he was tasked was finding new ways to make the company’s operations more efficient and less wasteful. He spent years evaluating waste stream processes throughout P&G’s business units before sustainability became “sexy.”
And at a company the size and scale of P&G, McDougall’s job was not easy. He spent much time collaborating with various departments throughout the company, including EHS (environment, health and safety) and purchasing to find new processes that were not only more environmentally responsible, but could either save the company money or generate revenue. For every waste diversion project, McDougall expects a certain level of return on investment.
Of the average company’s total raw materials, 96 percent of all those unfinished goods go into the products–but finding a proper way to reuse, recycle or unload that remaining four percent often proves to be a pesky task. Many creative reuses involve what P&G’s Len Sauers recently described to me as the company’s “science-based” approach to sustainability. For example, some raw materials for toothpaste work well for jewelry polish and cleaner. Base ingredients for face cream can work well as an upholstery restorer.
But once someone on McDougall’s team finds a solution at one factory, there is no guarantee the answer will solve the original problem forever: the staff must be nimble and think quickly on their feet to insure these zero-waste facilities do not suddenly send new streams of waste to landfill.
A factory could suddenly become saddled with heaps of a raw material ingredient because of a change in a product’s specifications or a shipment may not meet the company’s quality standards. Finished products, such as ones with an Olympic logo or a promotion that is no longer valid can fill up space in an adjacent warehouse (thank goodness for dollar stores). In the past, those goods would have ended up disposed of with a shoulder shrug and fleeting thought that such waste was the cost of doing business. But considering the company had already paid for those materials, that cost had then increased because of the financial loss and cost of disposal.
Instead, McDougall’s team finds new uses for various materials across the world. At a Charmin toilet tissue plant in Mexico, paper sludge waste is sold to a local company that renders it into low-cost but resilient roofing material. A Gillette factory in the UK composts some shaving cream waste. In a Pampers factory in the United States, scrap filler from diapers and wipes end up as upholstery filling.
Great examples indeed, but as McDougall explained to me, the process is not so simple. P&G works with local firms so that they are not solely reliant on P&G’s waste or excess raw materials–after all, the materials needed at each factory could quickly change. And we are not just talking about supply and demand. In emerging economies, the local infrastructure, or lack thereof, also can pose hindrances. Local regulations can always throw the company for a loop, too.
Nevertheless, P&G is on its way. Review the goals the company has set and decide for yourself if these are attainable and realistic. Seven years goes by quickly!
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. He will speak at San Francisco State University on climate change, the media and business tomorrow, April 3 at 5pm. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: P&G]