Our packaging footprint

We currently use around 2.1 million tonnes of packaging every year, from paper and board and metals such as aluminium and steel to glass and mixed material laminates used in sachets and pouches.

Assessing our impacts

We have always taken a holistic approach to packaging, looking at the packaging and product together. This is because the lifecycle greenhouse gas and water impacts of wasted product, whether it is shampoo or soup, can be much greater than the environmental impacts of the packaging alone. This approach enables us to be more effective in tackling our impacts.

We also look at packaging waste in the context of local recycling infrastructure. If systems are in place to be able to reuse and capture the value contained in packaging, this reduces the overall environmental impact of the packaging.

Our waste footprint

Since 2008 we have been assessing the waste footprint of our products against a new metric. This measures both the grams of packaging material and the product left over in the pack that have not been reused, recovered or recycled on a 'per consumer use' basis, for example the waste associated with one serving of soup.

Our metric excludes the waste generated by our manufacturing operations, which we measure as part of our eco-efficiency programme.

We used expertise and knowledge from both inside and outside the business to develop our metric and apply it to our portfolio of products. We set a baseline by calculating the waste from over 1 600 representative products across 14 countries. The calculation covers 70% of our volumes. To estimate how much of the packaging was not recycled or recovered, we use published national indices for recycling and recovery, or our own estimates where these are not available.

Our total waste footprint (2010)

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This analysis has helped us to see which categories of our product portfolio generate more waste than others, and which could therefore yield the biggest opportunities for reductions.

Our waste footprint by category (2008)

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Our waste footprint by material type (2008)

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Our analysis has highlighted that our food packaging and shower gel bottles are the biggest contributors to our waste footprint but to achieve our target all categories will need to reduce their waste. Tea bags make a significant contribution to our overall product leftovers because a small amount of the material used to enclose the tea itself is not compostable; however, we are developing new technologies to address this.

To see the data behind the Sustainable Living Plan we have devised a Product Analyser that shows the environmental impact of a selection of our products across their lifecycle. This provides the greenhouse gases, water or waste impacts of a representative food, home or personal care product on a 'per consumer use' basis. So, at the touch of a button, people can find out the greenhouse gas emissions associated with one cup of tea or the water use for one wash with laundry powder or the waste associated with one use of a roll-on deodorant. See the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan for more.

We already use a significant amount of recycled material, particularly paper and board. We want to increase the amount of recycled material we use, for example in our plastic packaging. We believe that the more recycled material we can incorporate into our packaging, the less the demand for virgin materials. Our demand for post-consumer recycled materials, as well as demand from other fast-moving consumer goods companies, will drive up volumes, thereby making a more attractive business case for reprocessors and acting as a catalyst to increase the collection and reprocessing of materials.

To achieve our targets we will need to increase the recycling and recovery rates in our key countries. We have developed a Recycling and Recovery Index (RRI) to track these rates. The Index enables us to calculate the percentage of packaging per format type that ends up in landfill and uses data from publicly available national indices. In countries where indices across some or all material types are not available, we make assumptions based on local knowledge.

For example, if plastic (HDPE) bottles in country X have a recycling rate of 50% and a recovery* rate of 25% and we use 100 tonnes of plastic for our bottles, we would calculate the recycling and recovery rate as follows:

100 t minus 50% to recycling=50 t
50 t minus 25% to recovery=12.5 t
=62.5 t plastic is recycled or recovered
100 t minus 62.5 t=37.5 t plastic goes to landfill

* Recovery is where materials are reprocessed to obtain energy, ie incineration, anaerobic digestion or pyrolysis.

External review

Feedback and external scrutiny is important in helping to strengthen our analysis. We have invited an external panel of environmental lifecycle analysis experts to review our approach.

The purpose of this exercise is to provide:

  • assurance of the robustness (transparency, quality, completeness and relevance) of our approach, including the way in which we collected and compiled our data
  • scientific review of the individual metrics (greenhouse gas emissions, water and waste), including the scope and boundaries of the current metrics, the validity of calculation methods, assumptions and data sources
  • assurance that the results and conclusions are fit for purpose, including the scope of our data and how we communicate the results.

The panel is led by Professor Roland Clift, Professor of Environmental Technology at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy. We plan to publish the outcome of the peer review exercise in 2011.

Since 2008 we have been assessing the waste footprint of our products against a new metric. This measures the grams of leftover product and any packaging that has not been reused, recovered or recycled in both absolute terms and per consumer use of the product.

This analysis has helped us to see which categories of products generate more waste than others, and which could therefore yield the biggest opportunities for reductions.

We have also implemented a process to consider sustainable packaging earlier in the design phase of a product. Under this new process, packaging materials are benchmarked against other available options and must show improvements over time.