Launched in 2010, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan has pledged to double the company's growth while reducing its environmental and social impacts across its operations and supply chain. Zero waste has been one pillar of the CPG giant’s plan. The company has made steady improvements in just a few years, and last week it announced that all of its factories have achieved the company’s goal of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill.
According to Unilever, its waste diversion efforts have resulted in €200 million (US$225 million) in savings while boosting social enterprise projects and jobs. The ways in which Unilever has avoided pitching garbage are almost as diverse as the company’s product line.
In Egypt, the Middle East division of Unilever took on several tactics to eliminate waste. One program involves the company sharing and sorting recyclable waste with local residents, who then can repurpose the material into products they can use or sell. Another project distributes waste paper to Unilever employees, who churn it into handicrafts or stationery. The workers have a choice to keep the profits or use them towards credit for transportation or education.
Many of those employees who take advantage of the program are disabled, and under Egyptian law, disabled workers must comprise 5 percent of a company’s total workforce — but those jobs only offer low-paid, menial work. In a country where 25 percent live in poverty and unemployment is at best 13 percent, such steps like this are needed as Egypt continues to suffer political turmoil and sluggish economic growth.
Elsewhere in the region, Unilever’s Lipton plant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which is the company’s second largest tea plant worldwide, used to generate over 333,000 square feet (31,000 square meters) of waste annually. During the past few years, in addition to reducing and recycling paper packaging, the company installed a composting machine to treat the by-products resulting from tea production. Tea dust is also captured and used as fertilizer. Producing 1.2 million tea bags an hour and 6 billion annually, the factory now sends no waste to local landfills despite providing exports to 50 countries.
In addition to tea, Unilever also has a massive ice cream business. Of course, manufacturing all those frozen goods generates a huge demand for energy, in addition to unpleasant waste that is difficult to dispose. At its plant in in Saint-Dizier, France, the company contracted with Degrémont, a water treatment company, to install equipment that churns that waste into biogas. Not only has the factory saved money on its electricity consumption, but it has also reduced costs from the elimination of hauling the waste to a recovery center.
Across the pond in Clearwater, Florida, where Unilever operates another ice cream factory, little steps added up: from selling five-gallon buckets to local stores to reusing cookie liners as garbage bags. Unwanted office furniture and supplies are also sold to a local Habitat for Humanity office, which in turn sells them within the local community — also creating jobs.
Unilever is aligned with its competitors, including Colgate-Palmolive and Procter and Gamble, which have made progress on cleaning up their supply chains and eliminating waste. Now comes the hard part: In an era of disposables from razors to shampoo bottles to plastic cookie trays, what level of responsibility are these companies going to take for their products once they leave store shelves? As municipalities worldwide struggle with diminishing landfill space, the past response of leaving it to consumers and retailers is no longer sufficient. Taking the initiative on extended producer responsibility would be a huge positive step forward for these companies.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.