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When commercial plastic first hit the market over half a century ago, its merits were recognised instantly. Almost overnight, the design of a host of everyday products – including packaging – was totally transformed.

Today we are seeing the other side of plastics. Yes, they are still helping keep consumer goods safe and affordable in ways that were once unimaginable. But they are doing so at a major cost to the environment.

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$40bn

cost of damage to the environment caused by plastic packaging pollution.

A boy wades through a chronically polluted waterway in the Philippines. Image: Reuters

Our planet is awash with plastic waste

Currently, only 14% of plastic gets recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill or, worse, litters the world’s streets, streams and oceans. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. And because common plastics are made from fossil fuels, there are serious climate change implications to consider as well.

Modern society would be lost without modern plastics, yet the situation cannot remain as it stands. The reasons for action are not only environmental. Plastic packaging waste currently costs the world economy $80 billion every year. Something must be done.

Moving towards a circular economy

At Unilever, we purchase around 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging every year. Two billion people use a Unilever product every day.

So we have given considerable thought to what we can – and should – do as a large user of plastic packaging. And we are joining with others around a common vision of a ‘circular economy’ and championing the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘New Plastic Economy’ model.

2025

target for Unilever to be using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging

28%

decrease in waste impact per consumer use since 2010

Today, products get bought, used once or twice, and then thrown away. Packaging itself rarely gets a second use. The ‘circular economy’ idea proposes that we replace this ‘take–make–dispose’ model with a system of perpetual reuse. To design our ‘stuff’ with their reuse and end of life in mind.

From a purely business point of view, it is utterly illogical to spend good money on finite raw materials like oil, only to then see them used once and thrown away.

Making plastic packaging more planet-friendly

This thinking fed into our new goal announced in January 2017: to make all our plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

We are already making progress. Our starting point is the quantity of packaging we use. Redesigning our packaging has already seen us reduce the amount of packaging waste per consumer by 28% since 2010.

To address the challenge of ocean plastic waste we need to work on systemic solutions – ones which stop plastics entering our waterways in the first place.

David Blanchard, Chief R&D Officer, Unilever

Improving the types of plastics we use is also key. For example, we have a target to increase the use of recycled plastic content in our packaging to at least 25% by 2025. At the moment, we are constrained by availability of materials, recycling infrastructure and technology. Around 30% of plastics remain extremely difficult to recycle.

Take sachets. Like many companies, we use them to make our products accessible to low-income consumers who otherwise can’t afford simple products like soap or shampoo. To address sachet waste, we are investing in a technology called CreaSolv, a chemical process that breaks down the complex polymers in sachets so that the plastic can be reused again and again. To test the commercial viability of this, we are launching a pilot recycling plant in Indonesia early next year.

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8m+ tonnes

volume of plastic dumped in the world's oceans annually

We all have a part to play

At Unilever, we are hugely ambitious but also realistic. Plastic waste represents a pressing problem of global proportions. Changes to our operations can make a difference, but they cannot achieve the wholesale transformation that the world needs to see.

We need leadership not only from other consumer goods manufacturers but also from packaging firms, waste management companies and governments. And given the important role we all have as consumers, we need to help people make recycling a lifelong habit. We are working alongside all these groups and momentum is building.

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At Unilever, we are not standing still. We are committed to working with others to transition to a fully circular system. That way, consumers can continue to enjoy the merits of plastic packaging, without the environment having to pick up the tab.

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