Devil in the detail: Unilever denies “PR stunt” in Indonesia after halting €10M recycling project
25 Jan 2022 --- Unilever is facing a fresh round of public criticism over the alleged closure of a single-use sachet recycling facility in Indonesia, which the FMCG touted as a major step in the effort to halve its use of virgin plastic.
An investigation by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) in the Asia Pacific claims to have discovered the facility secretly closed, costing €10 million (US$11.3 million) and devastating the livelihoods of thousands of waste pickers relying on the project.
“This is another of Unilever’s deceiving publicity stunts designed to altogether avoid the problem of single-use plastic and the solution (redesign their packaging), so it’s business as usual,” says Froilan Grate, GAIA Asia Pacific Regional Coordinator.
However, a Unilever spokesperson tells PackagingInsights this is untrue, and the facility remains open. Its current failure, they say, is a necessary step in the learning process to develop an effective solution to the country’s pollution problems.
“There are no easy solutions or quick fixes. It’s a complex technical challenge that requires different approaches for different countries. Alongside improving the collection and recyclability of sachets, we are also looking at other ways to deliver affordable products to consumers in emerging markets, including material innovations and new business models, such as reuse and refill solutions,” says the spokesperson.
Ideology versus science
The plant was trialing a novel physical recycling technology branded CreaSolv, which claims to be “the first in the world to be able to recycle and reuse multilayer plastic packaging waste.”
Gerald Altnau, managing director of CreaCycle, which co-produces the technology, tells PackagingInsights NGOs like GAIA are ignorant of the difference between physics and chemistry and its implications for packaging waste management and make ideological arguments without scientific backing.
“They [some environmental NGOs] consider us – providers of recycling technologies – as the devil,” he says. “GAIA has no official information that the plant is closed. A pilot plant is small scale but large enough to mimic a technical-commercial process. They will kill every experiment before it starts.”
Altnau adds that recycling innovators are the “worst thing that can happen to polymer producers,” since companies like CreaCycle are actively working to circularize the economy.
However, GAIA global communication lead Claire Arkin asserts that according to local people, the physical plant is not in operation. “The investigation was from August through December 2020 and our researchers spoke to folks who were involved in the project. Also a recent Reuters article gave some compelling evidence that the project has been dropped,” she says.
Despite the apparent viability of certain physical recycling technologies like CreaSolv, corporations like Unilever remain accused of using these scientific advances as small-scale experiments while continuing to mass produce hard-to-recycle plastics that are poisoning the environment.
“The [CreaSolv] project is a distraction created to make us think that this is the solution to the plastic waste issue,” says co-coordinator Rahyang Nusantara of Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia (AZWI).
“AZWI members have shown that there are solutions, and it starts from the ground through policy work and multi-sectoral cooperation. What we need is for the plastic industry and the FMCG industry to recognize that the zero waste system works, and they need to be a part of it instead of pushing for fake solutions that are detrimental to the environment.”
According to the Break Free From Plastic movement’s annual brand audit report last year, Unilever is the third biggest corporate plastic polluter on earth.
In Indonesia, plastic sachets make up 16% of plastic waste, amounting to 768,000 metric tons per year, according to GAIA.
Flexible recycling explained
Flexible packaging materials used in sachets and pouches that contain products like soup and sauces are typically made with multiple layers of different plastics that provide various functionalities. This material make-up is what renders the packaging hard-to-recycle, explains Unilever.
For instance, one layer prevents moisture and/or light from spoiling the contents, another seals the packaging, and another can display printed product information.
“This type of material is crucial in protecting the product quality in hot, humid storage conditions in environments like market stalls. The problem is that most plastic sachets are not currently being recycled as it’s difficult to separate these various layers, and the materials have little or no economic value. As a result, flexible packaging often ends up as waste,” they say.
However, in many markets (like Indonesia), plastic sachets allow consumers an opportunity to buy small amounts of products – often ones that provide hygiene or nutrition benefits like shampoo, toothpaste and food – that they would otherwise not be able to afford.
CreaSolv is one of the novel technologies Unilever says can effectively answer these problems.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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