Louis Lindenberg - Global Packaging Sustainability Director
In my R&D role as Global Sustainability Packaging Director, I am able to drive innovation in packaging that is moving our business towards a zero-waste world – and inspiring others to do the same.
There is a clear business case for reducing waste. Through my work, I am helping to create efficiencies and cost savings in materials, energy, transport and disposal. I am also ensuring we use less of the earth’s precious resources and create more circular models for materials which will ultimately create increased value for our company and for others. This is just one of the things that makes my role so fulfilling – and why I feel so privileged to work at Unilever where I see this philosophy in action every single day.
Packaging and its impact on the world
People sometimes ask me what packaging is actually for. Fundamentally, there are three different ways in which packaging is used.
1. To preserve and protect
Packaging acts as a shield so consumers receive their products in the right condition.
2. To improve the consumer experience
Packaging is essentially functional. There are many ways in which it helps people use products more easily, whether it is a trigger on a spray bottle or a flip-top cap that makes it easier to open and close your shampoo.
3. To communicate
Packaging is also a medium for informing consumers about what the product is, what it contains and how it can be used.
My role in helping to reduce waste
In 2010 when we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, I developed a waste strategy focused on resource efficiency and end of life solutions for the packaging we put onto the market. Different elements of the strategy were to be driven by different areas of the business. For example, our categories would predominantly focus on resource efficiency initiatives through their innovations programs, while our country teams would be focusing more on the recycling initiatives specific to their needs.
Over the years I have refreshed the strategy, bringing in new thinking such as the “Circular Economy” concept and setting more stretching goals to ensure we continue to push the envelope in what has become a very hot topic for our consumers and citizens globally. The question of what happens to packaging ‘post consumer use’ is personally very important to me, and I try to find ways of ensuring discarded materials can be reused or recycled so that they retain some, if not all, of their value after they have been used.
From an internal perspective, this means looking at the design of our products and making sure they can go through the available recycling streams. It also means trying to reduce the amount of packaging we use without compromising functional properties.
From an external perspective, we engage in a vast range of activities. This includes working with governments and NGOs, as well as competitors and environmental companies, to develop effective infrastructure. It also includes creating consumer education programs about what can and can not be recycled and incentivizing people to recycle more. In Indonesia, for example, we have a program called Waste Bank, where people are given funds for bringing their used packaging back. In addition, we are involved in many external collaborations such as the Ellen MacArthur New Plastics Economy initiative, as well as an initiative from the Consumer Goods Forum, who are looking at ways to reduce the amount of packaging that ends up as waste.
One area I am personally very passionate about is finding solutions for flexible packaging films, in particular multi-layer materials. We sell many millions of products in single-use sachets, mainly in developing markets. This makes our brands affordable to people on low incomes. Sachets use plastics more efficiently per ml than bottles, despite their small size, and this results in less solid waste by weight. However, their low value and the lack of disposal facilities means they can create litter. Finding commercially viable solutions for these types of materials, is a real challenge, but equally poses a massive opportunity to innovate in this space.
Sharing sustainable technology with the world
Technology, developed by our strategic materials team in collaboration with external partners, is also helping us find solutions to the problem. I am pleased to say we have chosen to share some of our technological solutions rather than keeping them to ourselves.
Ultimately, Unilever is a business that believes in doing the right thing. By opening up our technology to our competitors, we are better able to bring about the transformational changes we are committed to, as part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.
Just one example where we have waived exclusivity rights is our compressed deodorant technology, which uses a re-engineered spray system to enable a new 75ml aerosol can to last as long, and perform as well, as a regular 150ml can. This technology has already been adopted and utilized by one of our major competitors in Brazil.
Another example is the solution we developed with our global packaging suppliers ALPLA and MuCell Extrusion, which allows companies to reduce the amount of material used in extruded blow moulded plastic bottles by around 15%.
I hope to be involved in many more such innovations in the future, as we continue our drive towards zero waste – and I feel very blessed to be working in a role that enables me to tackle such a pressing global issue.