Southern Brazil, an area fondly known as the breadbasket of the world, is also the location of our Pouso Alegre site where 1,100 employees manufacture some of Unilever’s leading food brands.

As well as manufacturing Hellmann’s and Knorr products, the factory has production lines for Arisco broths, Mae Terra, one of the Brazil’s best-known brands for natural and organic goods, and plant-based beverage AdeS for Coca-Cola.

Some 80% of the factory’s waste is mineral-rich, plant-based, recyclable organic matter, explains Environment Coordinator Rodrigo Cano. But he and his team were focused on ways to achieve zero organic waste disposal and started to brainstorm ideas around circular economy. “We liked the idea of reusing waste,” he says.

Food for thought

When you work in a factory manufacturing food, quality raw ingredients are always front of mind. “Our organic waste contains all you need to create a great compost. The idea of having our own kitchen garden that everyone in the factory could use grew from there,” he adds.

A south-facing green space was found in factory grounds and an external company was contracted to build some greenhouses and a recycling area. “Where possible we reused materials in their construction too,” says Rodrigo. “We used recycled tetra pack tiles to make the roof.”

Five people were assigned to the gardening team. “Severino, one of our ops managers, was blessed with green fingers and became head gardener,” says Rodrigo. All five are responsible for caring for the crops and deciding what seasonal varieties to grow.

Giving nature a helping hand

The garden’s secret ingredient is the compost made from factory waste which provides quality soil and natural pest control. “It normally takes 120 days to create compost from organic matter,” says Rodrigo. “We had tech on the site to reduce the time needed to ten days. We simply put everything in a mixer and use peat and calcium hydroxide to accelerate the exothermic reaction and incorporate beneficial bacteria.”

The greenhouses and their raised plant beds were completed on a glorious sunny day. Fittingly, salad leaves were chosen as their first crop. “We made planting into a family day. It was a lovely to see how much fun some of the kids had digging the soil and getting their hands dirty,” Rodrigo says.

Man and young girl planting lettuce plants in our onsite garden at Pouso Alegre, Brazil. Compost that feeds the garden is made from organic factory waste.

Today 90% of the garden’s harvest is used in the factory’s cafeteria and 10% is given to a local community care home that looks after 80 senior residents and a nursery which educates 217 local children. Factory staff are also free to take lettuce home for their own use.

Having access to fresh produce grown on site, has an impact on staff eating habits. “We eat better, we eat together,” Rodrigo explains. “Next year we are hosting four workshops with Knorr, looking at nutrition and healthier options.”

Knorr’s work looking at Future Foods and raising awareness of plant-based crops means that beets, spinach and purple cabbage may soon be grown in the factory’s greenhouses. There are plans for a community garden that local groups can use and there’s potential to sell on factory compost commercially.

Achieving zero waste and additional revenue opportunities provide the factory with strong commercial benefits. “But for me, this project is more than a way to achieve a KPI,” says Rodrigo. “It’s a new way to look at our manufacturing processes so that something good comes from every part of the process.”

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