Litter in the developing world

We sell many millions of products in single-use sachets, particularly in developing and emerging markets, that can end up as litter.

An opportunity & a challenge

Single-use sachets make our brands affordable to people on low incomes. They provide consumers with the option to buy small quantities of quality products when they need them – a particularly valuable resource in developing economies. They are also an efficient use of packaging, creating less waste by weight per millilitre of product sold than bottles. However, in the developing markets where sachets are most popular, infrastructure for recycling or disposal is often limited, and the sort of ‘flexible waste’ that discarded sachets represent can be an eyesore and a potential long-term environmental nuisance.

If we can help create a value for this waste product, there is an incentive for people to collect it. The material and energy contained in sachet packaging can be recovered, either through incineration or through conversion to fossil-fuel substitutes. As well as an obvious environmental benefit, this route offers potential social and economic benefits, too, through job creation and alternative sources of income for poor communities.

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Our Sustainable Living Plan target is to:

  • Develop and implement a sustainable business model for handling our waste sachet streams by 2015.

Our approach is to:

  • Implement design improvements to create sachets that use less material or material with less environmental impact.
  • Support litter awareness programmes.
  • Work with others to explore economic models which create incentives for collection and reuse of our packaging.

How are we making it happen?

We have set up a global task force to reduce sachet waste through technology and education – and possibly by helping to create a whole new market for reuse.

We have set our engineers the task of designing and making sachets that use less material and, wherever possible, material with the lowest environmental impact.

In 2009 we identified a potential technological approach, pyrolysis, which turns sachet material into fuel and recovers up to 60% of its embedded energy.

However, the problem with sachets is often not what they are made of but how they are disposed of. The sachets contain very small amounts of material and there is currently little economic incentive for their collection. So we are working with others both to raise awareness of litter issues and explore economic models which create incentives for the collection and reuse of our sachet packaging.

Results from one of our pyrolysis pilot projects provide an encouraging example. Our Hindustan Unilever factory in Pondicherry, India, has successfully used fuel extracted from post-industrial sachet waste to power its plant. The fuel has also been burnt in cement kilns in Western India. Although the project is in its early days, we plan to extend its scope to include post-consumer sachet waste: creating a viable market for a steady supply of used sachets.

In 2009 we conducted a study in Asia that confirmed that pyrolysis could offer an effective technological approach to dealing with sachet waste, recovering much of the energy used in the manufacture of the material and offering a practical solution to the problem of sachet litter. We ran pilot projects in four countries in 2010 to assess the commercial viability of pyrolysis.

Two factors affect the reduction of environmental impacts created by post-consumer sachets and flexible packaging. First, the format does not possess sufficient economic value to allow for collection and recycling. Secondly, waste management infrastructure in developing and emerging countries is either poor or inadequate. Both factors contribute to the litter problem caused by sachets and add to the burden for landfill sites. It is within this context that we aim to achieve our vision.

We are analysing the results of these pilots, first to see if they can create a sustainable value for discarded sachets, and secondly, to understand whether they provide a potential business model for waste recovery in economies where recycling and disposal infrastructures are still in development. We have created a team focused specifically on this area and by the end of 2011 we will have a roadmap in place to drive this initiative into the next phase.