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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Unilever, eliminating landfill waste from hundreds of sites

In January 2015 Unilever announced that over 240 factories had achieved zero waste to landfill status – by replicating this zero waste model in other parts of the business, nearly 400 additional sites have now eliminated waste to landfill. This has been achieved by continuing with the four ‘R’ approach of reducing, reusing, recovering or recycling, proving that waste can be seen as a resource with many alternative uses – from converting factory waste to building materials, to composting food waste from staff cafeterias. Today, Unilever reached a new industry-leading achievement of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across more than 600 sites, in 70 countries, including factories, warehouses, distribution centres and offices. Sustainability caught up with Pier Luigi Sigismondi; Chief supply chain officer to learn more.

Sustainability: Unilever claims to have set a new industry-leading achievement of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across more than 600 sites across its supply chain.  Can you unpack what this means from an operational perspective?

Pier Luigi ZWTL. Photo Credit: Uniliver

Pier Luigi ZWTL.
Photo Credit: Uniliver

Mr Sigismondi: We started our zero landfill mission by identifying all the waste streams in our operations. For example, in our manufacturing network in Côte d’Ivoire we had more than 50 different types of waste, which we had to find alternative uses for. Reduction of waste at source remains our number one priority, as well reusing items where possible, recovering or recycling. Our mission was for any item that came into our factory to either go out as a product or to go back into the supply chain.

By replicating this model in other parts of our business, nearly 400 additional sites have now eliminated waste to landfill. This includes offices, warehouses, and distribution centres.

From an operational perspective this is not just about achieving zero waste to landfill but ensuring it is maintained 365 days a year – so it’s a new way of working at our sites.

Sustainability: What happens to the hazardous waste?

Mr Sigismondi: Local country legislation sets out which waste is classified as ‘hazardous’ and how this should be dealt with. We always comply with local legislation, and so the definition and disposal route varies from country to country.

We are committed to continuing to reduce hazardous waste and have reduced by a significant amount since 2008.

Sustainability: Was this expensive to achieve?

UniCR_Turkey_Ice_Cream_ Provided by Unilever.

Photo credit: Unilever.

Mr Sigismondi: Our zero waste to landfill achievement incurred minimal cost. We developed the model in-house, working with academics and taking inspiration from others who had achieved the impossible – from mountaineers to sports teams!


Sustainability: What are the bottom line, business benefits of doing this?

Mr Sigismondi: We have proved that eliminating waste to landfill makes sound business sense. Our waste reduction programme has contributed to more than €200 million of cost benefits in our manufacturing network and has created hundreds of jobs in the wider economy. For example, our team in Egypt have been empowering disabled employees to earn extra income by recycling waste material from our production lines.

We have also created mutually beneficial partnerships with other industries. For example in Indonesia, factory waste can be used as an alternative fuel in the cement industry which contributes to CO2 reduction.

Sustainability: Have you seen any return on this investment yet?  How will you measure it going forward?

Mr Sigismondi: The biggest investment has been time and knowledge sharing and this is what will also drive continued progress for us and our wider value chain.  Overall there is a strong financial case because, as stated earlier, achieving zero waste to landfill across our factory operations contributed to cost benefits of more than €200 million and in some markets waste became a commodity and thus an income stream.

Sustainability: What is your next milestone after achieving this one?

Mr Sigismondi: Our next milestone is to continue our work to bring all sites in line with this achievement, including all future site openings and acquisitions. Our ultimate goal is to achieve zero waste across the value chain. Today, we are also announcing a collaboration with the leading value-chain platform 2degrees to help bring organisations together to leverage the zero waste model.  This new platform, which is due to go live this summer, builds on our event last June where we brought businesses, academics and NGOs together to share our learnings. We know that we cannot achieve a transformation in this area on our own, which is why we want to continue to share our knowledge and best practices to encourage others to join us on this mission for a zero waste future.

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