Our waste & packaging footprint

We use around 2 million tonnes of packaging from paper and board and metals such as aluminium and steel, to glass and mixed material laminates used in sachets and pouches.

Assessing our impacts

We have always taken a holistic approach to packaging, looking at the packaging and product together. This is because the lifecycle greenhouse gas and water impacts of wasted product, whether it is shampoo or soup, can be much greater than the environmental impacts of the packaging alone. This approach enables us to be more effective in tackling our impacts.

We also look at packaging waste in the context of local recycling infrastructure. If systems are in place to be able to reuse and capture the value contained in packaging, this reduces the overall environmental impact of the packaging.

We assess the waste footprint of our products against a metric we have developed. This measures both the grams of packaging material and the product left over in the pack that have not been reused, recovered or recycled on a 'per consumer use' basis. For example, the waste associated with one serving of soup.

Our metric excludes the waste generated by our manufacturing operations, which we measure as part of our eco-efficiency programme.

Our waste footprint

We used expertise and knowledge from both inside and outside the business to develop our metric and apply it to our portfolio of products. We set a baseline of 2008 by calculating the waste from over 1,600 representative products across 14 countries. The calculation covers 70% of our volumes. To estimate how much of the packaging was not recycled or recovered, we use published national indices for recycling and recovery, industry association data or our own estimates where these are not available.

This analysis has helped us to see which categories of our product portfolio generate more waste than others, and which could therefore yield the biggest opportunities for reductions.

Our waste footprint by category (2011-2012)

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Our waste footprint by material type (2011-2012)

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Unilever 2011-12 footprint study across 14 countries.

Our analysis has highlighted that our food packaging is one of the biggest contributors to our waste footprint but to achieve our commitment we will need to reduce waste across all product categories by reducing the weight of packaging and by helping to increase recycling.

Tea bags make a significant contribution to our overall product leftovers because a small amount of the material used to enclose the tea itself is not compostable. We are, however, developing new technologies to address this. Measured by material type, paper and board, flexible laminates and glass make up the majority (two-thirds) of our waste footprint.

To see the data behind the Sustainable Living Plan we have devised a Product Analyser that shows the environmental impact of a selection of our products across their lifecycle. This provides the greenhouse gases, water or waste impacts of a representative food, home or personal care product on a 'per consumer use' basis. So, at the touch of a button, people can find out the greenhouse gas emissions associated with one cup of tea, the water use for one wash with laundry powder or the waste associated with one use of a roll-on deodorant. View the Product analyser.

External review

Feedback and external scrutiny is important in helping to strengthen our analysis. Over 2010-2011 we invited an external panel of environmental lifecycle analysis experts to review our approach.

The panel was led by Professor Roland Clift, Professor of Environmental Technology at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy. For the panel’s report see Peer review of metrics.