The British/Dutch conglomerate Unilever may have a reputation for creating enormous amounts of packaged food and personal grooming products that the world doesn’t really need. But the company is at least doing its best to create these unnecessary items in the most sustainable way it can.
In late January, Unilever announced that just over half of its 258 factories around the globe are now zero-waste facilities, meaning they send no waste products to landfills. The current tally of more than 130 zero-waste factories is a 75 percent increase from the company’s 74 zero-waste facilities in 2011. According to Unilever officials, the company is on a pace to make all of its facilities zero-waste by the end of 2015 — five years earlier than they had originally planned.
The zero-waste goals are part of Unilever’s ambitious Sustainable Living Plan strategy, which aims to reduce the packaging materials in its products by 50 percent, cut its greenhouse gas emissions and water use in half, and source 100 percent of its materials sustainably by 2020. Also, the company wants to continue a rapid expansion to double its sales over this same period; so far, annual sales have recently risen from $55 billion in fiscal 2010 to $67 billion in 2012.
Part of Unilever’s strategy is to convert or build more efficient factories, such as its Jiutepec facility in Morales, Mexico. Built in 2011, the Jiutepec plant has become a model for best practices at Unilever’s current and future production facilities, with a strong recycling program that captures all plastic and other packaging wastes for reuse.
The Jiutepec factory, which makes deodorants, incorporates a photovoltaic energy array on its roof to generate interior lighting and a rainwater collection system for use in landscaping, using plants native to the region’s arid climate. The factory also uses permeable asphalt so that what little rain does fall is absorbed into the ground rather than carried away as runoff.
Inside the facility, skylights have been added to let in natural daylight and reduce the need for electric lighting. Sensors have been added that automatically shut off equipment when it is idle to conserve energy. Motors and compressors throughout the plant also use energy-efficient variable-speed motors.
On the production side, Unilever has redesigned much of the packaging in its products so that less waste ends up on factory floors and trash bins. For instance, at a Russian Unilever facility, perforated bags that once held tea leaves are collected and reused as animal bedding at pet shops. In China, the plastic shrink wrap used to protect palletized boxes has been replaced with a reusable elastic fabric.
According to Unilever, these waste reduction efforts have diverted the equivalent of 1 million household trash-can loads from reaching landfills and also saved the company $94 million annually.