About the author
Tony has worked at Unilever for more than 25 years and has more than 20 years experience in manufacturing. In his current role as part of the Group Manufacturing Sustainability Team, Tony drives the Global Waste reduction programme, including the delivery of the ‘zero waste’ ambition of eliminating waste to landfill across all 240 Unilever factories. He is also involved in initiatives achieving CO2 and energy reduction.
There are places in Indonesia which have some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. But if you step off the beach and into the sea you’ll be sharing the water with something that shouldn’t be there: plastic.
Our zero waste ambition
A lot of that waste has been blown into the environment from landfill sites, creating a lasting blight on the environment. It is a similar story all over the world, with landfill sites cracking and leaking into the soil, or overflowing and allowing rubbish to blow around.
This isn’t a new problem. Most people recognise that sending waste to landfill is unsustainable, and most businesses and governments want to end it. The challenge is getting people to act – most businesses of our size, for example, are struggling just to reduce their waste to landfill by 50%.
This year at Unilever we sent nothing to landfill from any of our manufacturing sites. We achieved a reduction of 100%, exceeding our own targets, set in the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, of reducing the amount of waste to landfill to 2008 levels by 2020. What’s more, we did it while saving money for the business.
Creating a cleaner world
Like everyone involved in the zero waste programme, I am very proud of what we’ve done. The environmental benefits of achieving ‘zero waste’ speak for themselves – a cleaner world and a better legacy for our children. But our programme created other benefits too, for societies and for our business. Around 1,000 job opportunities were created, often in communities where jobs are sorely needed. At the same time Unilever achieved significant cost benefits, showing that the business can gain from environmental initiatives.
I’d never say that we’ve achieved perfection. There are areas that we need to revisit and processes that we need to optimise, and that work has started. But I do think we have learnt a couple of valuable lessons.
The first is about waste itself. In fact I’d like to stop using the word ‘waste’, because what we’ve found is that the material left over from our operations can always be used.
Stop using the word ‘waste’
Our success has come partly from drastically reducing the amount of these leftovers, and by increasing what we recycle conventionally. But it has also been driven by finding new ways to use these materials – often by finding other industries that can use them, in what we’ve called ‘industrial symbiosis’. It has called for an imaginative approach – who would have thought that compressed plastics could make corrugated roofing sheets, for example?
The second is that we can achieve extraordinary things when we all get behind something and have a clear vision of what we want. We got to zero waste because people in every one of our operations changed their behaviour in small ways, learning from each other and thinking about the best way to apply the programme in their market, with all its unique challenges. Small changes make a big difference – which is the Unilever way.