Unilever’s Zero Waste to Landfill Strategy

Submitted by: Nadia Shah, Tuesday, December 2, 2014

<p>Unilever's Indonsa Plant in Durban (featured above) is one of the company's manufacturing sites which is striving towards achieving its goal of diverting all non-hazardous waste from landfill by 2015 [Image Source: Unilever]</p>

Unilever's Indonsa Plant in Durban (featured above) is one of the company's manufacturing sites which is striving towards achieving its goal of diverting all non-hazardous waste from landfill by 2015 [Image Source: Unilever]

Unilever South Africa has made significant progress towards achieving its goal of diverting all non-hazardous waste generated at its manufacturing sites from landfill by 2015. This goal was set in 2010 when the company launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan which aims to double the size of the business whilst halving the environmental impact.  Nono Zulu, Safety Health and Environmental Manager for Unilever Southern Africa, explained that the change was inspired by the appointment of a new CEO who had a vision for a brighter future, “The company took a new direction when Paul Polman came on board. Responsible and sustainable business practices became a key focus. We started looking at our waste, water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The Zero Waste to Landfill Initiative forms part of Unilever South Africa’s broader programme to reduce its environmental impact, promote sustainable living and enhance livelihoods.”

Waste Management Policy

Unilever’s focus has been on diverting non-hazardous waste from landfill because the risks associated with the large volumes of non-hazardous waste exceeded the risks associated with the much smaller volumes of hazardous waste generated.

The approach taken was to consider and review its environmental footprint and identify the areas of greatest impact. Zulu notes that while most companies focus their waste management efforts on the recycling and recovery of waste, Unilever’s ambitious target meant that the company had to enforce waste management processes which align with the principles of the waste hierarchy.  In order of priority Unilever’s Waste Management Policy aims to reduce the quantity of waste generated, reuse materials, recycle and recover energy from waste. Disposal of waste at landfill sites is Unilever’s last resort, and is only considered when all other options have been exhausted.

The implementation of Unilever’s Waste Management Policy was guided by ISO14001 which simplifies the iterative process into four phases: Plan. Do. Check. Act.


During the planning phase Unilever looked at its organisational structure, responsibilities and compliance. In addition management’s commitment was communicated to all stakeholders and employees underwent waste awareness training.  Unilever also made plans to include waste segregation and monitoring into the standard operating procedures at their manufacturing sites.


The focus of the implementation phase was to identify, measure and monitor the major waste products generated on site. During this phase a waste mapping exercise was conducted. This exercise entailed creating waste flow diagrams to analyse major sources of waste and identify opportunities for improvement. Waste reduction targets were then set in line with these findings. Unilever also looked at its raw material and product waste. This involved defining a simplified step by step procedure focussed on reducing raw material and packaging material in addition to finished product losses. The goal was to achieve a cost savings, however cost neutrality was also deemed acceptable. Unilever conducted a waste cost minimisation study to identify, manage and reduce the costs of waste.


In order to maintain management control, monitoring and performance reviews were conducted regularly to track progress towards achieving their targets and highlight areas which required attention. This phase also involved actively searching for alternative uses for waste products to reduce costs and waste sent to landfill for disposal.


During this phase the problem areas identified by the monitoring and performance reviews were analysed by management and preventative and corrective measures were put in place accordingly. Zulu explains that this phase relied on management’s commitment, “Leadership is required to make progressive business decisions. ISO14001 aims for continuous improvement and is driven forward by targets set by management. It is based on a commitment from management to consider waste in every operational aspect of the business from product research and design, to sourcing raw materials, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution.”


Zulu mentions that there are a number of challenging waste streams such as foil wrapping, food sachets and label backing paper. Unilever has found innovative alternative uses for some of the challenging waste products generated at their factories. Tea dust, spices and soup powders are composted, margarine and vegetable oils are used as biofuels and petroleum jelly is used to produce candles and lubricants.

A further challenge faced by Unilever related to the unwillingness of staff to change their behaviour. “An operational change of this scale requires each and every employee to change their mindset.  We really struggled with this because it is difficult to build new habits.” In order to combat this, Unilever held several staff training and awareness campaigns and conducted audits. “It might sound ridiculous, but at times we had to physically topple bins to check if waste had been separated,” said Zulu. In addition sustainability practices were incorporated into the employees’ key performance indicators to evaluate their behaviour and promote accountability.


By 2013 Unilever had successfully reduced the amount of waste sent to landfill from its manufacturing sites by two thirds compared to the 2008 baseline figure, as shown in the graph below. 

Zulu is confident that Unilever South Africa will meet its target of diverting 100% of non-hazardous waste generated at its manufacturing sites from landfill by 2015. “At the moment almost all our waste is being diverted. The most challenging waste streams, which we are yet to find alternative uses for will be incinerated to provide energy to power a cement kiln. If everything goes to plan we are set to meet our target by June 2015.”

The way forward

Zulu explains that once the target has been reached, Unilever South Africa will focus on reducing waste generated at its other business premises such as its offices and warehouses. There are also plans to encourage sustainable waste management practices amongst its consumers by hosting educational programmes at schools. “In the long term, our goal is to implement waste management practices throughout our supply chain by adopting a cradle-to-cradle approach,” said Zulu.

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