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Sweet success for United Biscuits

Waste stories from the retail sector nearly always involve the big supermarkets and what they are doing to reduce waste and improve recycling. But, as any retailer will tell you, the responsibility to cut waste and be more sustainable does not start and end with them: it applies all the way along the supply chain.

When you pick up a well-known product at your local shop, it is easy to forget what the manufacturer might have done to lessen its environmental impact before the item even reached the shelf.

United Biscuits (UB) is one such manufacturer. The company says it has been working tirelessly on its sustainability programme since 2007, and its efforts around waste reduction and recycling saw it win the accolade for Waste Minimisation at this year’s National Recycling Awards.

The targets relating to waste and recycling which UB set itself back in 2007 were fairly ambitious. The first was to achieve zero food waste to landfill by 2010 and zero non-food waste to landfill by 2015. The second was to reduce packaging by 20% by 2015 compared with 2003 and to provide more advice to consumers on how best to recycle.

“You simply cannot achieve the sustained level of improvement that we have without the enthusiastic involvement of all employees”

“We aren’t doing this to generate financial savings,” explains UB head of corporate communications Bob Brightwell. “We are doing this because it is the right thing to do. In recent years, we have become more environmentally friendly almost by accident as we focused on improving efficiency. But in 2007 we decided to tackle environmental issues deliberately by developing our own set of goals. This followed the launch of a similar set of targets by the industry body the Food & Drink Federation (FDF). All our goals were at least as challenging as those launched by the FDF, if not more so.”

UB has been doing so well on these targets that it has actually moved its date for achieving zero non-food waste to landfill forward by three years to 2012. The measures implemented by the company to cut both food and non-food waste and increase recycling were various, and many involved a high-level of employee engagement, says Brightwell.

“Staff have readily engaged in the process. We are proud of the fact that waste and recycling, an area that required the highest level of involvement by employees, is probably the target we have made the most progress against. You simply cannot achieve the sustained level of improvement that we have without the enthusiastic involvement of all employees.

“At the start of the environmental programme, we also launched a suggestion scheme because our employees are the experts in our business and they knew best how to reduce waste and improve recycling. Many ideas were received, from the removal of
desk bins in offices, to workshops with suppliers to generate a reduction in inbound packaging that fed into our waste stream. We have also encouraged a competitive spirit within our sites with competitions for waste reduction and regular monthly progress reports.”

Each UB site has also been involved in choosing recycling initiatives specific to it. For example, at the McVitie’s biscuit factory in Harlesden, north London, old safety footwear is recycled through Oxfam, and staff are encouraged to recycle cans and newspapers in a recycling centre on-site. According to Brightwell, employees have been incredibly receptive to the environmental programme and support the progress the company is making.

He says: “They know that as well as being employees they are global citizens, and see regularly news in the media about the damage being done to the environment. They are pleased that the company has launched a programme to improve our environmental performance. We have run roadshows at our sites to highlight how employees can improve their own environmental impact.”

Working with suppliers to cut waste and packaging has also been a key feature of UB’s efforts. The company has held a number of workshops with its suppliers to generate ideas, such as reducing the number of materials used that are not recyclable, providing raw materials in recyclable containers and reducing the amount of surplus packaging on goods. In many cases, this has led to a reduction in cost for both the supplier and UB.

The company has also adopted other more novel ways of dealing with its waste, and in no area is this more apparent than when it comes to dealing with food waste. Much of the food waste produced by UB at its factories is recycled into animal feed or, in some cases, into other food. Crumbs left over from the biscuit-making process are used as the bases for cheesecakes, for example.

Brightwell adds: “Where we have goods that we cannot sell for some reason but are of saleable quality, then we will also look to support charities such as Fareshare, of which we are a founding sponsor.” UB has also worked on converting waste vegetable oil from its snack factories into biodiesel, which it uses in its vehicles and plants.

Making the UB business greener has involved considerable investment. Around £300,000 has been spent on improving recycling facilities across the business, but the company has also benefitted from increased revenues from the sale of recycled materials. Far more importantly, Brightwell adds, the results demonstrate it has been an investment well worth making.


United Biscuits (UB) is an international branded snacks business behind some of the world’s best known sweet and savoury brands. UB is currently the subject of a £2.5bn takeover bid by Chinese food producer Bright Foods Group. At the time of going to press, the outcome of this bid was not known.

  • Brands include McVitie’s, Jacob’s, KP and McCoy’s
  • 8,500 people employed across its UK business
  • 11 manufacturing sites based in the UK
  • In July 2010, UB won the Waste Minimisation Award at the National Recycling Awards


  • In 2009, UB reduced the amount of waste sent to landfill by 44%.
  • Target for sending zero non-food waste to landfill has been brought forward from 2015 to 2012.
  • UB now recycles 89% of all non-food waste and 100% of food waste. This compares with 62% and 97% respectively in 2007.
  • UB has reduced its packaging by 13% since 2003. It is now working with WRAP to develop new packaging formats to help continue packaging reductions.
  • Specific packaging reductions include reducing the thickness of its snack film bag by 17%, which has saved 680 tonnes of packaging a year, and reducing the volume of bags of mini biscuits by 30%, which cut the volume of packaging by 22 tonnes.
  • Engaging UB’s 8,500 employees in the environmental programme, including helping them to make changes at home as well as at work.



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