A person wearing a hardhat pushes a trolley across a factory floor

This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • 12 - responsible consumption and production

Towards waste-free manufacturing

Average read time: 6 minutes

We’ve spent more than a decade reducing waste and recycling in our operations. We’re still striving to do better and find innovative ways to keep resources in use for longer.

While we’ve made great strides, cutting the amount of waste we dispose of by around 96%* per tonne of production since 2008, there’s still more we can do.

Female factory worker carrying recycling

Most of the waste in our operations today is leftover sludge from treating wastewater from manufacturing food, beverages and beauty products. Some raw materials, ingredients and food are also wasted. And the rest is mostly smaller amounts of cardboard, paper, plastic and packaging waste, as well as waste from building operations.

Refuse Sack

96% We’re disposing of 96%* less waste per tonne of production than we did in 2008

Our zero waste journey

We’ve sent zero non-hazardous waste to landfill from our factories since 2014. That journey started in 2010 when we set the target – which we reached six years ahead of our 2020 deadline across our global network of factories. We believe it was a world-first on this scale in our industry.

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97% recycled We recycle, reuse or recover 97% of our operational waste

Next, we extended our zero waste mindset to other parts of our business. By February 2016, nearly 400 additional Unilever sites in 70 countries – including offices, distribution centres and warehouses – had achieved zero non-hazardous waste to landfill.

To achieve this, each of our sites undertook a detailed mapping of mixed waste streams and considered every material consumed. Our dedicated collection and storage points make waste segregation easier at sites. We’ve also trained employees involved in waste management, who’ve developed detailed action plans for reuse, recycling or recovery. Where we find approaches that work, we transfer them to our other sites around the world.

Now we want to go beyond our own operations and have a positive impact on waste practices in our supply chain too. We’re working closely with our third-party manufacturers to share what we’ve learned and help them on their own zero waste journeys.

How we’re working to be waste-free in our operations

Our zero waste mindset means we look at waste materials as a resource. Where we’ve not been able to find ways to refuse or reduce waste, we look for routes to reuse or recycle it. And if these solutions aren’t available, we recover energy from the waste.

Our waste hierarchy

Refuse

Our waste reduction journey starts with refuse – that is, avoiding waste being generated in the first place. Eliminating or reducing waste at source is the best way of cutting our environmental impact and creates the most opportunities for savings. For instance, at many sites, we require suppliers to use returnable pallets and containers, thereby limiting the amount of waste that we need to manage. And our Nashik factory in India is now using reusable containers for its chocolate supply, improving their relationship with the supplier and reducing the amount of plastic waste generated via reverse logistics.

Reduce

We want to be as efficient as possible at converting raw materials into products and reducing the amount of waste generated. We don’t stop here. We focus our efforts on all material coming through the factories. For example, at our Casalpusterlengo Home Care factory in Italy, forklift trucks are now using lithium batteries, which not only consume 25% less energy but also last three to four times longer than lead ones.

Several of our sites are working with their suppliers to reduce the packaging that raw materials are delivered in. Our Nashik factory in India, for instance, receives their jam pulp in drums that can be washed and reused over and over again reducing metal waste generation by over 100 tonnes a year.

Reuse

We look for ways to reuse our materials ourselves or make them available for others. Our aim is to get the most possible value from materials by upcycling them. In recent years we’ve increased our reuse rate by 20%, keeping materials in the circular economy for longer. When others reuse the materials we no longer need, we don’t count this as a waste because it helps reduce the consumption of natural resources in other industries.

For example, in our Cuernavaca factory in Mexico, we receive raw materials and packaging in cardboard boxes. We have found that these boxes can be reused by other industries, such as for transporting snacks around the country. In 2019, we found a way to reuse sludge waste from our savoury factory in China to feed earthworms.

Recycle

The majority of our waste is recycled, sometimes in innovative ways. For instance, our Pouso Alegre factory in Brazil composts organic waste and uses this to fertilise fruit gardens that grow food for the staff canteen. At our Carrascal site in Chile, we have created a garden with furniture made from pallets, and plant pots made from drums. For most sites, recycling means segregating waste into paper, plastics, metal and glass, and we can often sell this to recycling companies for them to make into new products.

Some of our sites have extended their waste programmes to ensure that their employees also have a way to recycle the waste they generate at home. Our Pouso Alegre site in Brazil implemented an ‘eco-point’ recycling area for employees to use at the entrance to the factory. And our St Petersburg factory in Russia has a similar collection point that allows employees to dispose of hazardous waste like batteries and mercury thermometers in a safe way.

Recover

Where we have not yet found routes for recycling, we recover waste materials and use them to generate energy. At many of our factories around the world, we do this through our global partnership with the cement manufacturer LafargeHolcim and its waste management service provider Geocycle. Our waste materials are pre-treated and used as alternative fuel and raw material in their cement kilns. Even the ash is used – it’s fully incorporated into the cement clinker, so it doesn't leave any residues.

Another example of waste recovery is our waste tea from our Agarapathana factory in Sri Lanka. This is used as a fuel in our boilers, which also helps reduce the carbon emissions from our site.