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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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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