Use Once And Deploy

DarrelUnilever, manufacturer of brands such as Pot Noodle and Lynx deodorant, announced that it had reached zero waste to landfill in its UK facilities. CIWM’s Darrel Moore found out how.
Published in the CIWM Journal March 2013

Zero waste image
Unilever replicated successful recycling techniques across its factories

Across the world, 130 Unilever sites have achieved zero waste to landfill. This achievement is a great feat in any light, but taking into account the sheer size of the company, that the company also recently boasted annual sales of €51bn, then you can truly see just how mammoth the achievement is. Unilever UK has not only achieved zero waste to landfill in half of its sites, but it did so while actually growing the business. So how would such a target be approached?

“If you look at our goal of doubling the size of the business, reducing our environmental impact and increasing the positive social impact, then it’s actually a clear vision,” Unilever’s group environmental engineering manager, Tony Dunnage, explained. “Looking at manufacturing specifically, we wanted to reduce waste, we wanted to reduce our C02 energy and we wanted to reduce water usage.”

Tony Dunnage – “You can make a commitment, but until you put actions into place then its nothing more than a commitment.”

In November 2010, Unilever set out its Sustainable Living Plan, committing to a ten-year journey towards sustainable growth. The plan was formed to stretch right across the value chain, by taking responsibility not just for its own direct operations, but also for its suppliers, distributors and for how its consumers use its brands.

The “zero waste” ethos was implemented throughout the many layers of the company, from executive level to the factory floor, which Tony said was a major contributor to its success. “With the objective being so supported by our CEO and top management, we were able to cascade it down to a factory level. That was the first and most important bit, but then, of course, you still need to do it.

“You can make a commitment but until you put actions into place then its nothing more than a commitment,” Tony said. “This achievement is down to leadership and resources as an organisation, and generating the networks and processes to make it happen.”

The most important thing was for Unilever to reduce its waste at source, according to Tony. “That’s the most resource efficient way of dealing with it, and also the best way to deal with it from a business perspective.”

Deploy Everywhere

Unilever products include popular brands like PG Tips and Surf
Unilever products include popular brands like PG Tips and Surf

Tony revealed that the company looked into where it should focus its efforts, with regards to making reductions, and where the company would see the biggest benefit. “Since 1995 we’ve been able to track the performance of all of our factories on a web-based system, where people like me can roll up reports and discover which country represents which percentage of our waste footprint,” Tony said.

With this information, it was decided that a country-by-country approach would be taken. “Specifically for waste,” Tony said, “because we know that legislation is different from one country to another, the infrastructure is different and even down to the culture and the way the people operate, in terms of waste generation and what we do with it afterwards, that makes a difference.”

The “design once, deploy everywhere” philosophy, was the next step in Unilever’s plan. The company looked at what was working, and where, and set out to recreate the successful models across all its facilities. It looked at which facilities recycled the most, which ones had reduced the most waste and set out to discover what they were doing to achieve this that other facilities were not.

“We took the UK example and thought where can we deploy that?” Tony said. “We did a lot of benchmarking in this process to look at who is the best performing in terms of how much waste they generate, and then we set out to answer the question of why one factory was performing much better than another. Once we understood the answers to these questions we could then copy a lot of what we do in one over to the others. That’s where the strength of the network really comes into its own.”

Tony explained that the most important activity in this was to reduce the amount of waste at source. “That’s not only from a resource efficiency perspective but also from a zero waste mindset and a commercial perspective, because that’s where we save the most amount of money.

“Of course, this doesn’t happen without having good professional partnerships at a country level,” Tony added, “so we also looked at who the partners are in terms of recyclers, or waste management companies who we can partner with on a national or international level, that can help us meet our aspirations while bringing their expertise to the table.”

Reduce And Grow

Unilever wants to double the size of the business while reducing its environmental impact. This, traditionally, is seen as a contradiction of terms, but regardless of this, the company announced that by 2015 it aims to produce less manufacturing waste than it did in 2008, despite producing higher volumes.

“In terms of waste we’re at half of the levels now than we were in 2008, even though we’ve grown the sales within the business by more than 25 percent,” Tony said. “We set out a vision that wasn’t just to talk about growth, but to set the challenge within the business to de-couple growth and environmental impact. It does appear to be a bit of a contradiction in terms, but if we set ourselves these challenges, and if it is possible, then we will find a way.”

Tony Dunnage – “In terms of waste we’re at half of the levels now than we were in 2008, even though we’ve grown the sales within the business by more than 25 percent…”

The company also made a clear commitment regarding its new factories, revealing that a lot of growth will come in the emerging and developing markets and the factories it builds to accommodate this will be zero to landfill.

With the world’s inevitable depletion of natural resources and the unavoidable rise in the price of materials, Unilever is one of many companies that have realised that making the most of resources not only makes environmental sense, but also economic and business sense too.

“There is no other way,” Tony said bluntly. “And I think other companies are picking up on this. If we’re honest, it’s very good for business. I’m sure all businesses aspire to grow, aspire to become more profitable, and one of the ways to do that is to take out business waste.”

Packaging Waste

To achieve Unilever’s goal of reducing the weight of its packaging by a third, the company aims to make small changes to the packaging sold around the world. Brands typically update their packaging every few years and the company’s aim is to lightweight or improve the material choice each time a redesign is briefed.

In 2011 Unilever redesigned the Unox cup-a-soup pouch in the Netherlands, cutting aluminium by a third and overall pouch weight by six percent. It also introduced a new design for the Vaseline Petroleum Jelly jar, which has cut plastic by three percent, saving about 113 tonnes of resin a year and making the pack more recyclable.

Tony Dunnage – “Over the past few years people have really challenged whether sustainability is good for business. We’re proving that we can grow the business, shrink our environmental footprint and save money as we do it.”

The company made a target to provide consumers with refills in its home and personal care portfolio to make it possible to re-use the primary pack bought when first purchased and now offers refills in a limited number of countries where the consumer habit is well established.

Unilever, however, say its difficult to establish a viable business case for refills and so are putting more effort into reducing and recycling instead. Nevertheless in 2011 it launched refill pouches for Sunlight dishwashing liquid in South Africa. These weigh around 90 percent less than the original plastic bottle.

The company recently made big strides in reducing the packaging of its aerosol deodorant cans by reducing the size of the can without reducing how long the contents lasted. The move means the cans use 25 percent less aluminium, and as approx 19m cans of female aerosol deodorant are used per year in the UK, this equates to the reduction of 24 tonnes of aluminium per year.

Although many consumers recycle kitchen waste, the bathroom tends to be forgotten, according to Unilever. In 2011 it partnered with RecycleBank in the United States to encourage consumers to recycle shampoo bottles in return for money off coupons. An online module educated people about what they can recycle, what recycling symbols to look for and then rewarded them with points that could be redeemed. Tony concluded: “Over the past few years people have really challenged whether sustainability is good for business. We’re proving that we can grow the business, shrink our environmental footprint and save money as we do it. Hopefully other businesses will be able to show the same results, which will benefit us all in the long run.”

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Darrel Moore

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