The Greenest Tea: Unilever's Lipton Tea Achieves Zero-Landfill Goal at Suffolk, Va. Facility

Oct. 23, 2009
Company says that by reducing environmental impact, they are saving on operating costs -- another benefit of doing well by doing good.

Stumped on how to make your business greener and leaner? Just ask the employees. That's what Ted Narozny, manager of Unilever's Lipton Tea manufacturing plant in Suffolk, Va., did when his facility learned of the brand's broader commitment to sustainability and the recent milestone surrounding the Rainforest Alliance certification for its sustainably sourced tea. Inspired by the announcement, the Lipton team in Virginia came up with more than 70 green ideas before deciding to set its sights on being a zero-landfill facility. This decision not only furthers the environmental goals of the brand, but also of Unilever overall which is committed to doing well by doing good.

As Lipton's only tea-producing facility in the U.S. -- meaning all the Lipton tea from California to New York has gone through this facility -- cutting the local landfill out of the waste disposal plan was no easy task. The facility sources teas leaves from approximately 25 different countries around the globe such as Kenya, Argentina, and China.

The following is a Q&A with Ted Narozny on how he and his 400 employees reached their zero-landfill goal in less than two years.

Q. What does zero-landfill mean?

A. Zero-landfill means that we do not send any waste materials to landfills from this particular plant. Instead, we process our waste through robust recycling and composting programs and turn some of it into usable energy.

Q. Where does the waste material go if it is not sent to a landfill?

A. In the case of the product we make, all materials are not created equal. For that reason, 70% of the waste goes to traditional recycling facilities or is reused. This includes items such as corrugate and paper. Twenty-two percent of our waste, such as tea dust and strings from the tea bags, is composted. And the remaining eight percent of our waste, which consists of items such as cafeteria waste, is converted into usable energy that is put back into the local power grid.

Q. How did Unilever's Suffolk, Va. Lipton plant reach its zero-landfill goal?

A. In 2008, we began taking steps to achieve our zero-landfill goal for the plant. The initiative was truly employee driven from coming up with the idea, to implementing it, to keeping it running. The first step to getting things off the ground involved a partnership with Sonoco, a leading recycling and waste management company, to undertake a recycling review and identify additional recycling opportunities. Part of this step also included landfill audits as well as working to eliminate products we were unable to recycle from the facility. One hundred of our employees-the Recycling Champions-helped sift through the landfill waste.

We then partnered with McGill Composting to help convert our bio waste into compost to be reused in an environmentally acceptable way as soil, fertilizer and mulch on our own grounds.

In addition, Unilever worked with the Southeastern Public Service Authority's waste-to-energy facilities, to turn part of our waste into usable energy.

Q. Why is zero-landfill important to Lipton and Unilever?

A. Our zero-landfill achievement is just the latest sustainability-focused effort among several for Lipton. The inspiration actually came from Lipton's recent pledged to source all of our tea for our tea bags from Rainforest Alliance-certified farms by 2015. This means they have been certified as adhering to standards that conserve biodiversity; ensure that soils, waterways and wildlife habitat are protected; and ensure that farm workers enjoy decent housing, access to medical care and schools for their children.

Zero-landfill also puts Lipton and Unilever in the category of brands and companies that take responsibility for the environment and the communities where we live and work. Our parent company Unilever, has long been dedicated to the idea that we can do well by doing good. From a business perspective, by further reducing environmental impact, we are also able to save in operating costs -- another benefit of doing well by doing good.

Q. What other manufacturers have achieved a zero-landfill goal? Are there other plants in the area?

A. It's great to see the impact we have made in such a short amount of time, and we want to continue to build upon that momentum. For that reason, we are reinvesting some of the financial savings back into the plant, making updates such as replacing old light bulbs with LEDs. At the same time, we want to keep in sync with principles of being a socially responsible company, which includes sharing our best practices in order to better the communities where we live and work. Recently, we shared our roadmap for achieving a zero-landfill goal with the team at our neighboring Planter's Peanuts and Sara Lee plants. We've even taken it one step further than simply telling them what we've done, by going into the facilities and physically showing some quick tips for getting a program like this off the ground.

Q. Can you quantify some of the environmental savings you have seen through the zero-landfill achievement? Have there been other savings?

A. We have seen a variety of positive improvements because of this program. We have conserved:

  • 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

In addition, we have seen financial savings of about $100,000 per year as a secondary benefit of our environmental savings and proof that we really can do well by doing good.

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