Waste & packaging

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Partnership For The Goals
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  4. Going beyond zero waste to landfill

Going beyond zero waste to landfill

We achieved our target of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill from our factories in 2014, six years ahead of schedule. We're focused on maintaining that performance while reducing our waste at source.

R&D in one of our factories in China

Building on the achievements of our zero waste mindset

We think a business can make a real contribution to the global effort of 'doing more and better with less'. Our experience of working to reduce waste makes us believe that not only is it possible, it’s good for business. This is the kind of responsible consumption and production called for by UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.

In December 2014, we achieved our target to send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill (ZNHWL)* across our global network of 242 factories in 67 countries. This means that the non-hazardous waste that was previously sent to landfill is now reused, recycled or recovered.**

We're proud of this achievement, which we believe was a world first on this scale in our industry.

We think the model that drove our factory achievements is repeatable beyond a manufacturing environment. So, we set out to extend our zero waste mindset to other parts of our business. By February 2016, nearly 400 additional Unilever sites had achieved zero non-hazardous waste to landfill, including offices, distribution centres and warehouses in 70 countries.

Maintaining our zero waste to landfill performance

Although we achieved our zero waste to landfill ahead of schedule, we still have a job to do to ensure that we maintain our performance. We make sure that our newly-built factories, or ones we acquire, don’t send non-hazardous waste to landfill.

In 2017, 0.07% of our non-hazardous waste was disposed to landfill.* We take any lapses very seriously and are confident that we have robust procedures in place to highlight any issues so that remedial action can be swiftly taken.

Each of our sites has undertaken a detailed mapping of its mixed waste streams so that we can consider every material we consume. We have put in place dedicated collection and storage points to make waste segregation easier and provided training to employees involved in waste management, who have then 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 - and we've found solutions requiring little, if any, investment, ensuring that our progress makes business as well as environmental sense.

How are we producing less waste?

Rubbish bag
37%

we’re producing 37% less total waste than we did in 2008

We’re producing 37% less total waste than we did in 2008, and we’ve achieved around €262 million in cumulative cost avoidance. Now that we send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill, we want to keep focusing on minimising the amount of waste we produce. We’re doing this in three ways:

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.

Reduce

We want to be as efficient as possible at converting raw materials into products and reducing the amount of waste generated. For example, at our St Petersburg deodorant factory in Russia, the plastic packaging of stick deodorants can be accidentally damaged before they leave the factory. In 2017, a new machine that removes the product from the damaged packaging was installed, so that the plastic can be recycled and the product repacked.

Reuse

We look for ways to reuse our materials ourselves or make them available for others. 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.

In 2017, we reused 107,000 tonnes of materials. For example, in our Port Sunlight factory in the UK, we receive raw materials and packaging in cardboard boxes. We have found that these boxes can be reused by other industries, such as for home removals.

In 2017, we reused 648 tonnes of cardboard in this way. Also in 2017, in the US we found a way to reuse any soap products that don’t meet our stringent quality standards - for instance if the soap we manufacture has the wrong fragrance – we can sell it to companies who use it to wash cars.

We look at waste as a resource

A central part of our zero waste mindset has been looking at waste materials as a potential resource. Where we have not been able to find ways to reduce or reuse waste, we try to find routes to recycle it. And if recycling routes are not available, we recover energy from the waste.

Recycle

The majority of our waste is recycled, sometimes in innovative ways. For instance, our Mangalore factory in India composts organic waste and uses this to fertilise fruit gardens that grow food for the staff canteen. At our Carrascal site in Chile, we’ve 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.

Recover

Where we have not yet found routes for recycling, we recover waste materials instead 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 is 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.

Sharing the value of materials through circular approaches

We do all we can to reduce waste inside the factories, but we’re also encouraging our factories to ‘close the loop’ and share resources wherever they can. And, look to have a positive impact on their surrounding communities and ecosystems.

For example, in 2017, our Knorr factory in Mendoza, Argentina, received its first crop of leeks grown through a new project with local farmers. We produce an organic soil conditioner by combining loose soil shaken from vegetables delivered to the factory with nutrient-rich effluent. The farmers use this on the same fields where the vegetables were originally grown.

Several of our sites are working with their suppliers to reduce the packaging that raw materials are delivered in. Our Caivano factory in Italy, for instance, transports the nuts we use in ice creams around the site in large, reusable bags rather than in cardboard boxes, reducing cardboard waste by 20 tonnes a year.

In 2017, several of our sites 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.

Reducing food waste

By wasting less food, we can help increase food security. That’s why in 2015 Unilever signed up to the Consumer Goods Forum’s commitment to measure the disposed food waste footprint from our manufacturing sites.

Through our zero non-hazardous waste to landfill achievement, we’ve already done a lot of work to ensure all waste – including food waste – is reused, recycled or recovered. But by working with others, we can eliminate waste on an unprecedented scale. As the world focuses on the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development to end extreme poverty, fix inequality and tackle climate change by 2030, the time for us all to drive more action on waste is now.

* We aim to maintain our achievement of zero non-hazardous waste to landfill (ZWL) across our manufacturing sites worldwide. However, incidents can occur where small amounts of non-hazardous waste are sent to landfill in error or because of operational changes e.g. acquisitions or supplier issues. We consider ZWL is maintained when less than 0.5% of non-hazardous waste is disposed to landfill in the 12-month period.

** Non-hazardous vs hazardous classification of waste streams is determined by local legislation in the locations where each of our factories operate. What constitutes hazardous waste differs between countries and definitions can change frequently.

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