Nothing is more wasteful than, er, waste. Companies pay for the raw materials that they don’t use. Then they pay again to have it trucked to the landfill. That’s why zero waste is an exciting idea. Reducing or eliminating waste is not only good for the planet, it’s good for business, as companies like Toyota and Wal-Mart have learned.
Smart companies that pursue zero waste are also taking us closer to an industrial system inspired by nature, where there’s no such thing as garbage. Think about a tree or plant, where this fall’s dead leaves become next spring’s food.
Today’s zero waste story comes from Lipton, the world’s largest tea company. Lipton is a unit of London-based consumer-products giant Unilever (40 billion euros in 2008 revenues), whose brands include Dove soap, Ben & Jerry ice cream, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Unilever’s an environmental leader—it helped start the Marine Stewardship Council which certifies the world’s fisheries as sustainable, it’s working with Greenpeace to develop environmentally preferable refrigerants and it led the laundry industry to concentrate detergent and reduce packaging when it came up with Small and Mighty All.
It turns out that virtually all the Lipton Tea sold in the U.S. comes from a plant in Suffolk, Virginia, which brings in tea from more than 20 countries, runs its production line around-the-clock and produces about 1 million tea bags per hour. Last month, the Suffolk facility became a zero waste operation. Credit goes not just to the managers but to the plant’s 400 workers, who got the ball rolling.
I spoke by phone the other day to Ted Narozny, the plant manager, who explained how it happened. Narozny, 41, has been with Unilever for 14 years, running a margarine plant and a soup-making factory before taking over the Lipton plant in Suffolk, a city in southeastern Virginia where it has operated for 55 years.
Back in 2007, Unilever, which buys about 12 percent of the world’s black tea, promised to buy all of its tea from sources that are certified as sustainable by a nonprofit called the Rainforest Alliance. That’s a big deal. Tea is a tropical crop and its cultivation can generate pollution, soil erosion and deforestation; working conditions on tea plantations, which are quaintly known as “gardens” or “estates,” can be grim. Unilever hopes to charge customers a premium for the tea that’s certified by the Rainforest Alliance, and then share the revenues with workers in Africa and elsewhere. (Here’s the 2007 announcement.) [NOTE: Unilever told me after this blog post was published that they will NOT charge customers a premium; while they pay extra for the certification and sustainability practices, the company says it absorbs the costs.]
When the Suffolk employees heard about Unilever’s plans, they asked whether they could step up their own recycling efforts. “We’ve always had a good recycling program,” Narozny told me. “They wanted to make it better.” He got 70 ideas from workers about how to curb waste.
Quickly, the waste reduction campaign became a hands-on effort. Teams of workers followed Lipton’s garbage to a local landfill, and (yuk) picked it apart to see what was being thrown away. Narozny said:
Of our 400 employees, we probably sent about 100 either to the landfill or to the composting facility. We’d get pretty dirty and smelly. But the people who went out became our recycling champions.
Since then, a lot has happened. Narozny asked suppliers to eliminate or reduce hard-to-recycle materials like plastic from their packaging, if possible. Other plastic is being shredded and recycled. Everyone got more careful about recycling cardboard, paper, bottles and aluminum cans—the things that (I hope) you toss into a recycling bin at home. Today, about 70% of the plant’s waste stream is recycled.
Tea dust, discarded tea bags and string posed a thornier problem. Lipton turned to a company called McGill Composting, which now transforms the facility’s bio-based trash into compost, some of which is reused as soil, fertilizer and mulch on the plant site. That accounts for another 22% of the factory’s waste.
The remaining 8 percent—things like cafeteria waste which can’t be easily recycled –is incinerated, providing steam for a U.S. Navy shipyard in nearby Portsmouth, along with electricity that is sold back into the grid.
Lipton claims it is conserving:
* 16 tons of plastic, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 13.76 tons
* 21,182 mature trees, the equivalent of 262 million sheets of newspaper
* 576,898 gallons of oil, enough to heat and cool 2,856 homes for a year
* 29,904 gallons of gasoline, enough to drive more than 837,000 miles in the average American car
* 8,722,000 gallons of water, enough to meet the daily fresh water needs of 116,293 Americans
* 5,108,600 kilowatt hours of electricity, or a year’s supply of power for more than 425 average homes
More impressive to the practical businessman is that fact that Lipton has turned its trash into cash. “In round numbers, we’re saving approximately $100,000 a year,” Narozny said. The company has invested some savings in new plastic recycling containers, some in more efficient lighting.
Best of all, the plant is operating more like….a plant.