Reducing Waste, Creating Jobs in Durham

Burt’s Bees has teamed with a nonprofit to meet an important sustainability goal

By Matt Kopac and Chris Szymanski

The Burt’s Bees brand is mission-driven.

We’re striving to reduce our environmental footprint by improving recycling and composting rates at our main office and plant in Durham, North Carolina. At the same time, we’re also helping adults with disabilities secure employment and support services through a partnership with the Life Experiences, a nonprofit based in Cary, North Carolina.

Life Experiences employees separate unsellable Burt’s Bees product from packaging so the items can be composted and recycled.

A push to reduce waste 

For the past seven years, Burt’s Bees has not sent any waste from our plant, office or distribution facility to landfill. We’re proud of that.

However, we still had some waste challenges that prevented us from being as environmentally friendly as we’d like.

The problem lay in product we produced and packaged but couldn’t sell or donate for one reason or another. (We always pursue donations as a first option in these situations.) Maybe the product was coming up on its expiration date, or maybe there was a minor flaw in the packaging or formula. Either way, we couldn’t send these items to retailers, we couldn’t donate them and we couldn’t recycle the packaging or compost the product because the packaging was full of product.

For years, our solution for disposing of these items was waste-to-energy (WTE). Essentially, we incinerated the unsellable product and packaging to create energy and used the resulting ash to make cinder blocks.

WTE is ecologically preferable to sending that waste to landfill, but it’s not as good as recycling and composting. And as much as 21 percent of the Burt’s Bees plant’s byproduct was WTE last fiscal year.

That number is higher than we like. One of our 2020 sustainability goals is to get WTE under 10 percent of our total byproduct and meet The Clorox Company standard for zero-waste-to-landfill practices.

A virtuous cycle

That’s where Life Experiences comes in.

Life Experiences is a nonprofit that runs businesses to employ adults with a range of disabilities. It also subcontracts with Durham-area businesses like Burt’s Bees for specific tasks appropriate for Life Experiences workers.

Employees of Life Experiences are helping us separate unsellable product from its packaging so we can compost the product and recycle its packaging. That means squeezing all the lotion out of a tube or twisting a lip balm out of its stick.

“Adults with disabilities gain such self-esteem from earning a wage for their work. Partners like Burt’s Bees allow Life Experiences to provide a great working environment for these adults,” said Mary Madenspacher, Executive Director of Life Experiences. “This is a win-win-win situation. It helps Burt’s Bees reach its sustainability goals, helps adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have meaningful work and helps improve our environment.”

Life Experiences has helped Burt’s Bees process unsellable product, reducing the waste-to-energy (WTE) on those products by 90 percent.

A meaningful impact

The result of these small tasks has been huge.

We’ve sent 30,000 lbs. of various Burt’s Bees products to Life Experiences to date. Thanks to the workers there, we’ve been able to compost 20,000 lbs. of that and send 7,000 lbs. to be recycled. Only 3,000 of the 30,000 lbs. of material sent to Life Experiences ended up going to WTE — a 90 percent reduction in WTE compared with past practices.

As a result, the Burt’s Bees brand is on track to meet its 2020 goal of limiting WTE to less than 10 percent of our total by product this year and achieving Clorox Company zero-waste-to-landfill status.

Burt’s Bees products that can’t be sold or donated await disposal.

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