We have spent many years reducing waste and recycling in our operations, and we continue to look for innovative ways to eliminate and derive value from our waste streams.
More than two-thirds of our production waste comes from biological sources (e.g. sludge from wastewater and inedible food waste). Where this waste is unavoidable, we seek to derive value from these streams by finding ways to reuse them (animal feed or biomaterials processing) or recycling and recovery into new products (like biogas production through anaerobic digestion or composting back to agricultural use). . See Fighting Food Waste to learn more about how we recycle food waste in our factories.
Other forms of non-hazardous waste streams are raw materials and product materials (plastics, cardboard, paper and packaging waste). Technically, we are trying to improve our recycling and recovery rates of these materials – which accounted for 96% of total waste in 2021. Much of this process takes place on-site, in partnership with recyclers or at our own recycling centers.
Our waste data from production
Find out more about our production waste performance:
96% Reducing waste disposal per tonne of production since 2008
Keep non-hazardous waste out of landfill
We continue to uphold our standard of no non-hazardous waste from our factories going to landfill. A feat we have achieved since 2015 and an industry first at our scale.
Since then, we’ve extended our zero-waste mentality beyond our factories to other areas of the business – including offices, distribution centers and warehouses.
To achieve this, each site undertook detailed mapping of the mixed waste streams, taking into account each material consumed. Our special collection and storage points facilitate waste separation at the sites. We also trained employees working in waste management to create detailed action plans for reuse, recycling or recovery. Where we find approaches that work, we transfer them to other locations around the world.
How do we deal with hazardous waste?
Waste is classified as either hazardous or non-hazardous according to local laws, so it is different at each of our manufacturing sites. Hazardous waste accounts for less than 1% of Unilever’s total waste. In 2021, we safely disposed of 4,486 tons of hazardous waste.
Our supply chain teams eliminate the use of hazardous waste materials at source. And our site waste programs continually work to eliminate hazardous materials. But even hazardous waste can often still be reused or recycled. As part of our broader work on tackling waste throughout the value chain, we continuously investigate different reuse and recycling routes – where local legislation allows.
How we work to be zero waste in our operations
Our zero-waste mentality means we treat waste as a resource. Where we couldn’t find ways to reject or reduce waste, we look for ways to reuse or recycle it. And when these solutions are not available, we recover energy from waste. By finding the best ways for material flows, we strive to strengthen our circular economy approach – improving factory operations and reducing our environmental impact.
Our waste hierarchy
Our waste reduction journey starts with waste – that is, avoiding waste. Eliminating or reducing waste at source is the best way to reduce our environmental impact and creates the most opportunities for savings. For example, at many sites we require suppliers to use returnable pallets and containers, thereby limiting the amount of waste we need to manage. And our factory in Nashik, India is now using reusable containers for their chocolate supply, improving their relationship with the supplier and reducing the amount of plastic waste generated by reverse logistics.
We want to convert raw materials into products as efficiently as possible and reduce waste. We don’t stop here. We focus our efforts on all materials that come through the factories. For example, forklifts at our Casalpusterlengo Home Care factory in Italy now use lithium batteries, which not only use 25% less energy, but also last three to four times longer than lead-acid batteries.
Several of our sites are working with their suppliers to reduce the packaging that raw materials are shipped in. For example, our Nashik factory in India receives its jam mash in barrels that can be washed and reused over and over again, reducing metal waste generation by over 100 tons per year.
We look for ways to reuse our materials ourselves or make them available to others. Our goal is to get the maximum benefit from materials through upcycling. In recent years we have increased our reuse rate by 20%, keeping materials in the circular economy longer. If other materials that we no longer need are reused, we do not count this as waste as it helps reduce the consumption of natural resources in other industries.
For example, at our factory in Cuernavaca, Mexico, we receive raw materials and packaging in boxes. We have found that these crates can be reused by other industries, for example to transport snacks across the country. At our UK factories almost all of our boxes are returned and reused for new shipments of packaging material.
In 2021, we found several ways to reuse organic waste. For example, the disposal of ice cream waste as animal feed in a number of our stores. In East Africa, we started a pilot project that converts low-grade food waste into fly larvae for a nutritious protein source for animal feed.
Most of our waste is recycled, sometimes in innovative ways. For example, our factory in Pouso Alegre, Brazil, composts organic waste and uses it to fertilize orchards that grow food for the staff canteen. At our Carrascal location in Chile, we have created a garden with furniture made from pallets and plant pots made from barrels. For most sites, recycling means separating waste into paper, plastic, metal and glass, and we can often sell this to recycling companies so they can use it to make new products.
Some of our sites have expanded their waste programs to ensure their employees also have the opportunity to recycle the waste they generate at home. Our Pouso Alegre site in Brazil has created an “Eco-Point” recycling area that employees can use at the entrance to the factory. And our facility in St. Petersburg, Russia has a similar collection point that allows employees to safely dispose of hazardous waste such as batteries and mercury thermometers.
At our Ceytea site in Sri Lanka, we extract coloring matter from spent tea leaves for use in the local fashion industry, with the remaining leaves being used as biomass for energy production.
Where we have not yet found recycling routes, we recover waste materials and use them to generate energy. In many of our factories around the world, we do this through our global partnership with cement manufacturer LafargeHolcim and its waste management service provider Geocycle. Our waste materials are pre-treated and used as an alternative fuel and raw material in their cement kilns. The ash is also used – it is fully integrated into the cement clinker and therefore leaves no residue.
At our Heppenheim, Burton and St Albans facilities, we continue to extract value from unavoidable waste streams by extracting biogas from anaerobic digestion to meet part of our heating needs – an innovative solution to support our decarbonization program.