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Biofuels Power China

In a major step forward for its carbon dioxide-cutting program, Unilever has launched a manufacturing process at its Hefei factory in China based on second-generation biofuels. Unlike the first-generation biofuels, the second generation uses non-edible plant residues and therefore does not compete with crops for food supply.

First active in China some 80 years ago, Unilever set up its manufacturing base for home and personal care products in Hefei in 2003, making it one of the biggest manufacturing sites for Unilever globally.

The business is now using straw as a source of fuel to produce laundry powder, reducing CO2 emissions by 15,000 tons annually (32% of total site emissions) at a considerably reduced cost to the business. The move further benefits the environment because it is no longer necessary to burn straw to produce a source of mineral replenishment for soil, which caused severe air pollution. Fortunately, the ash produced in the Hefei plant can also be used to replenish the soil – without the damage to air quality caused by burning.

“China clearly faces serious environmental challenges, making our new biofuel-based process even more meaningful, in addition to helping our local farming community to find a new commercial outlet for their waste. A win-win for all,” says David Ingram, VP, Supply Chain, Greater China Group. China is not alone in implementing biofuels programs. In Sri Lanka, the business has unveiled a new biofuel-powered boiler that uses agricultural residues such as coconut shells and sawdust to generate steam for manufacturing processes.

In India, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has been using biofuels in its Chiplun plant, in the Ratnagiri district, since 2006. Factories in Maharashtra and Pondicherry followed suit in 2007 and 2008 respectively – using biomass as fuel to generate steam. Plants in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and South Africa are also now using biofuels in their manufacturing processes.

As they do not compromise food supplies, second-generation biofuels are a prime example of Unilever’s commitment to renewable energies that deliver social and environmental benefits in the way they are sourced as well as in their eventual use. They will help Unilever boost its use of renewable energy, which currently stands at 17% of overall energy consumption.

Article originally published in the November 2010 edition of Sustain, the magazine of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

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