Unilever pledges to slice virgin plastic in half by 2025 in landmark circularity boost
08 Oct 2019 --- British-Dutch transnational consumer goods company Unilever has pledged to halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025. It aims to reduce its absolute use of plastic packaging by more than 100,000 metric tons, accelerate its use of recycled plastic and scale-up reuse and refill formats. The commitment makes Unilever the first major global consumer goods company to promise an absolute plastics reduction across its portfolio.
As part of the new commitment, Unilever also plans to “collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells,” equating to around 600,000 metric tons of plastic annually by 2025. This will be delivered through investment and partnerships which improve waste management infrastructure in many of the countries in which Unilever operates.
Unilever’s plastic packaging footprint today is around 700,000 metric tons annually, including recent acquisitions. The company will measure the total tons of virgin plastic packaging used each year against the total tons of virgin plastic packaging used in 2018. As a result of this commitment, Unilever is committing to a virgin plastic packaging footprint of no more than 350,000 metric tons by 2025.
The owner of world-leading brands such as Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Lipton and Omo, Unilever reports that it is already on track to achieve its existing commitments to ensure all of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and to use at least 25 percent recycled plastic in its packaging, also by 2025.
“We can only eliminate plastic waste by acting fast and taking radical action at all points in the plastic cycle,” says Alan Jope, Unilever CEO. “Our starting point has to be design, reducing the amount of plastic we use and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources. We are also committed to ensuring all our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable.”
“This demands a fundamental rethink in our approach to our packaging and products. It requires us to introduce new and innovative packaging materials and scale up new business models, like re-use and re-fill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity.”
In July, Unilever launched Cif ecorefill – a new at-home technology that allows consumers to refill and reuse their Cif spray bottles “for life.” Made with 75 percent less plastic, Cif ecorefill simply attaches to the current Cif Power & Shine bottles and seamlessly releases the super-concentrated product into the bottle, which is filled with water at home.
“Our vision is a world in which everyone works together to ensure that plastic stays in the economy and out of the environment. Our plastic is our responsibility and so we are committed to collecting back more than we sell, as part of our drive towards a circular economy. This is a daunting but exciting task which will help drive global demand for recycled plastic,” Jope adds.
Since 2017, Unilever has been transforming its approach to plastic packaging through its “Less, Better, No” plastic framework. Through this framework, Unilever has pioneered innovations such as the new detectable pigment being used by Axe (Lynx) and TRESemmé, which makes black plastic recyclable, as it can now be seen and sorted by recycling plant scanners, and the Lipton “festival bottle” which is made of 100 percent recycled plastic and is collected using a deposit scheme.
Unilever has also brought to the market innovations including shampoo bars, refillable toothpaste tablets, cardboard deodorant sticks and bamboo toothbrushes. It has also signed up to the Loop platform, which is exploring new ways of delivering and collecting reusable products from consumers’ homes.
Is it enough? The NGO response
Ellen MacArthur, Founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a key authority in the drive for a circular economy for plastics, described Unilever’s announcement as a “significant step” towards this end.
“By eliminating unnecessary packaging through innovations such as refill, reuse, and concentrates, while increasing their use of recycled plastic, Unilever is demonstrating how businesses can move away from virgin plastics. We urge others to follow their lead so collectively we can eliminate the plastic we don’t need, innovate, so what we do need is circulated, and ultimately build an economic system where plastic packaging never becomes waste,” MacArthur notes.
Sian Sutherland, Co-Founder of A Plastic Planet, an NGO that encourages consumers to imagine a world without plastic food and beverage packaging, tells PackagingInsights that as one of the top five biggest polluters of our planet, it is good to see Unilever “step up and pledge some serious plastic reduction.”
However, Sutherland believes that recycled plastic is still only one step away from the bin, incinerator, landfill or ocean. “There’s nothing circular in a downcycled toxic material. It is never going to be our final answer and we need to admit this now.”
“We need the power of Unilever investment in entirely new models - refill, reuse, bio-materials that nature can cope with. Having just attended the world’s first Global Plastic Health Summit, I am acutely aware of the toxicity of plastic and its impact on our health, especially our children. Every time a manufacturer chooses plastic for packaging; they now choose a known consequence and they must be responsible for it,” Sutherland says.
On the flip side, supporters of plastics point to the environmental benefits of the material. For example, a recent US and Canadian study concluded that plastics are more sustainable than the material alternatives in terms of energy use, water consumption, solid waste, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, eutrophication and acidification.
Plastics packaging is also highlighted as a vital defense against food waste because of its strong barrier properties. In September, the best before date on some of Unilever’s products under the Knorr and Hellmann’s brands began printing the Danish phrase for “often good after” on its packaging in a bid to cut food waste. Unilever Denmark took part in developing the concept with food waste reduction app Too Good To Go, along with other food manufacturers – including Carlsberg, Arla and Orkla Foods – who are now using the labeling on some of their Danish offerings.
By Joshua Poole
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