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Companies try to waste less, save more

Unilever (UL) recently announced a new achievement. Not breaking into a market or inventing the next hot consumer product. It was about trash.

The company's factories in Europe and North America have reduced to zero their nonhazardous waste that would normally to go landfills. Three-quarters of the company's factories have now achieved a zero-landfill level, up from only 20 percent three years ago, according to information Unilever sent to CBS MoneyWatch.

Although that still leaves questions about hazardous waste or nonlandfill waste that can run into bodies of water, it's still an impressive achievement.

[Update: Unilever told CBS MoneyWatch that it has reduced hazardous waste by more than 80 percent between 2008 and 2013. The company's total waste leaving all sites, including recycled materials, was down 15 percent over the same period.]

Trash can be big business. So can reducing the amounts a company generates. Not only are many corporations actively considering reduction of waste a part of their social responsibility programs, but they're finding that doing so can translate into significant bottom-line improvements. Unilever claims to have eliminated close to $24 billion in cumulative disposal costs.

The trick in reducing waste is to take a three-step approach:

  • Find ways to create less waste while making products in the first place.
  • Recycle waste products into materials for other uses.
  • Compost organic waste into fertilizer.
General Motors (GM) has been in the news of late because of massive recalls. But it's another example of a company trying to keep a lid on its refuse. GM boasts 110 landfill-free facilities, including 85 factories and 25 nonmanufacturing locations, including corporate headquarters. GM recycles or reuses almost 90 percent of its worldwide manufacturing waste.

Such figures, though, aren't enough to offset the lack of waste reduction happening in many homes, schools and businesses. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2012 Americans created 251 million tons of trash. That translates into 4.38 pounds of waste per person, per day. Of that, 34.5 percent was recycled or composted.

The per-person number may seem hard to believe, but that amount includes everything: discarded appliances, shipping cartons, food waste and broken products that are replaced instead of repaired. Not only do a lot of potentially reusable materials go into those landfills, but society must keep approving new locations as old ones become full, and that turns into fights over whose backyard will play host.

In addition, burying waste can keep it from breaking down. Because the material is in an airtight environment, decomposition doesn't occur. Closed landfills and surrounding groundwater must be monitored for decades to ensure that toxic substances don't leach.

Clearly, making sure the bad stuff isn't there and all possible trash gets reused is a more sensible solution. And if it also saves money, so much the better.

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