Unilever's Zero Waste Program Fuels Jobs and Profit
Multinational corporation Unilever—which makes food and personal care and cleaning products—announced last week that its aggressive waste reduction program reached its goal of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfills from all its factories worldwide, including 240 factories in 67 countries.
In 2010, it launched its Sustainable Living Plan. It focused on three broad areas that interacted with each other: improving health and well-being through better quality products; enhancing livelihoods through measures like responsible sourcing, fair compensation and inclusiveness; and reducing environmental impact by cutting greenhouse gas emissions at its manufacturing plants, slashing its water use and reducing wasteful packaging. The plan offered opportunity for good press on its eco-stewardship but it also offered some quantifiable business benefits.
"We purchase over 2.4 million tonnes of packaging a year and we are determined to reduce the absolute amount of materials we use and to ensure they are reused or recycled," says the company. "Our manufacturing teams have already exceeded their 2020 target, reducing waste by 66 percent per tonne of production since 2008."
Its zero-waste program has saved the company a lot of money—an estimated $225 million—and in the process it has generated jobs and fueled social enterprise projects, often in tandem.
Recycling materials that would otherwise have been discarded has proved to be an income opportunity for those in need in Egypt. The company distributes waste materials to local residents as well as employees to turn into products they can then sell. Discarded paper is used to create stationery, photo albums, calendars and notebooks; plastic strapping becomes prayer mats and tote bags; wasted tomato paste is repurposed as fertilizer.
Unilever environmental specialist Rania Bahaa is in charge of implementing that program.
"People are fetching the garbage looking for recyclable materials so that they can reuse it or sell it and earn money by doing so," she explained in a TED talk in New York. "That triggered the idea of sending our waste from the factories to people in need so that they can reuse it and produce products and sell it with dignity and earn money by doing so."
Under Egyptian law, disabled people must make up at least 5 percent of a business's workforce, but that doesn't prevent them from shunting such employees into low-paying jobs. Unilever created the Waraqa [paper] workshop to teach these employees how to reuse paper.
"Of course our disabled colleagues earn a salary from Unilever, but the Waraqa workshops give them a chance to earn extra money through the sale of products they have created," said Bahaa. "They can choose to either keep the profits or earn credit towards services we arrange such as education or travel to and from work. Bringing small initiatives to scale is what corporations can and must do."
Unilever's Lipton plant in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is its second largest, pumping out 6 billion tea bags a year—and a lot of potential waste. But it attained zero waste over a year and a half ago, composting organic waste, recycling tea dust for fertilizer, and reducing and recycling paper.
"By reducing our environmental footprint while promoting business growth, we can ensure that increased product volumes don’t come at the expense of the environment," said Sanjiv Mehta, chairman of Unilever's Middle East operations. "This enables us to sustainably deliver products to improve the consumer’s quality of life while actually reducing the waste and emissions in absolute terms."
Unilever's 26 facilities in the U.S. and Canada also achieved zero waste about a year and a half ago. Its Owensboro, Kentucky facility, which makes Ragu and Bertolli sauces, sends paper and plastic to be converted into tissues and composite lumber.
"By eliminating waste, our employees are demonstrating our sustainable business model in action,” said Kees Kruythoff, president of Unilever North America. “This achievement is an important milestone for Unilever as we continue to fulfill our vision of significantly reducing our environmental impact while doubling our business."
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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