Unilever 1, the Vatican 0

Multinational’s carbon cops push for cleaner solution at its Chinese plant

Unilever 1, the Vatican 0

Less of this...

Even the Vatican had given up on straw. Famously, news of the election of a new Pope was traditionally greeted with white smoke, aided by the throwing of straw on top of burning ballot papers.

No longer, however, as the cutting edge Conclave now uses chemicals to achieve the desired effect.

But rather than white smoke, consumer goods giant Unilever is now turning back to straw for a whiter-than-white wash. In a first-of-its-kind project, the company will produce 300,000 tonnes of washing powder at a factory in Hefei with heat generated from straw-burning boilers.

The burners – which can incinerate compressed straw, corn stalk and even peanut shell fuel – should reduce carbon emissions by 15,000 tonnes annually.

Two points in particular stand out. The first is that the company seems confident that the switch to biomass power will have fairly immediate bottom-line benefit. As we discussed in WiC8, critics of biomass energy claim that few of the plants built to generate power for the grid have made any money, and instead rely on revenues from carbon credits or government subsidies.

The Unilever case is a bit different, with biomass being incorporated into the production line. So project executives are talking about a full recovery of costs within two years. The upfront investment (about $1 million, linked to a redesign of a coal-spraying boiler) is not huge and the potential savings from using biomass fuel are significant. Although burning biomass generates less heat than coal or gas-fired combustion, Unilever is estimating a 50% saving in overall fuel expenses.

It turns out, however, that biomass power was not the factory’s first choice. The Hefei plant had been relying on natural gas until rising gas prices prompted a decision to switch to coal, despite the associated increase in carbon emissions.

Not a problem locally, and the local environmental protection bureau soon gave the go ahead, according to China Business News Weekly.

But Hefei factory executives had reckoned without Unilever’s own carbon footprint police in the UK, which blocked the move. The company is committed to a 25% reduction in carbon emissions by 2012 (from 2004 levels) in its manufacturing operations.

So a second highlight is that the case offers evidence that often-maligned multinationals can also have a beneficial impact in the communities in which they work too. Without the intervention from corporate headquarters, it looks likely that the Hefei locals would have plumped for the quicker and dirtier solution.

In fact, there are local factors that make the biomass choice a good one. Both Hefei and neighbouring Anhui are agricultural provinces, with a surplus of hay production. Seasonal harvest residue also ends up getting burned in the fields, which takes some of the heat out of criticism that biomass generation is still polluting. Most of the future emissions from the Hefei washing powder plant were probably already destined to go up in smoke.

Still, there are some challenges to overcome. One is the seasonality of the harvest, which means that straw is either in plentiful supply or has to be stored or sourced from further afield.

Another is that Unilever needs to work with farmers to develop a collection infrastructure that processes straw into fuel blocks, and then trucks 80 tonnes a day to the factory.

But Zeng Xiwen, vice president of Unilever Greater China, does not seem too perturbed. In fact, he is excited by the new venture. He expects all of the company’s new washing powder factories in China to adopt the straw-burner approach. If all goes to plan, the technology will be rolled out elsewhere, starting in Sri Lanka and India.

Unilever will not be applying for a patent for the modifications that have been made to the burner design either – it’s available to anyone who asks, comments the newspaper.

Perhaps the Vatican’s Sustainability and Environmental team might consider a factory visit…

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