In 2017, we made a public commitment that, by 2025, all our plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable, and 25% of it will come from recycled plastic content.
For us to hit that recycled plastic content target, we need lots of PCR. So, in places like Brazil, where collection and recycling are still being developed, we need to support it. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing with a local recycler called Wise.
Here Gabriela Cescato, who is our Packaging Sustainability Manager for Latin America and supports the Wise partnership, explains the initiative.
We have the demand, but we need to boost supply
Back in 2016, we realised that our requirement for PCR far outstripped what was available and even that was not of a high enough quality. To obtain the quantity – and quality – we needed, we had to help increase the supply. Essentially, we had to get involved in changing the nation's recycling landscape.
After scouting local recyclers, we identified Wise as the best partner. It has a focus on quality and safety, and the culture of the company is very much aligned with Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan.
Wise is a specialist supplier of recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the most common plastic used in our Home Care and Beauty & Personal Care bottles.
Quality is all-important
When using PCR to make packaging, it needs to be high quality – a ‘premium’ resin – otherwise, the new plastic could have an odd smell, look unsightly or even contaminate the product inside.
To ensure Wise could supply us with the right quality of resin, the company adapted its production process – with our technical support and expertise – investing €2 million in a new washing system.
Knowing this would give us the quality we were after, we intend to commit to a long-term contract to purchase whatever volume of PCR that Wise can produce.
Turning up the volume
Getting the quality right is one thing. Getting enough used bottles to feed into the Wise process to start with, is another challenge entirely.
Brazil produces around 80 million tonnes of waste annually. If a town has a government-run collection scheme, but the waste isn’t separated into recyclable and organic, plastic ends up in a landfill where it is most likely buried, but could be separated mechanically for recycling. In areas without collection services, plastic and other waste simply ends up being dumped into the environment.
According to CEMPRE (a non-profit organisation that promotes recycling), about 17% of the population has access to a collection system where recyclables are taken to a cooperative or to private companies for the material to be manually separated.
After separation, plastics and other materials are sold on to recyclers. The quality of the waste that reaches processing facilities is highly dependent on its origin. The larger volume – from landfill – comes in dirtier due to contamination from organic waste.
The whole sector is gaining momentum
This new model is boosting our PCR implementation in Brazil and kicked-off last spring with the launch of Sunsilk's tri-layer bottle, Seda Pretos Luminosos. This is our first bottle produced in the country which uses over 30% PCR. We’re currently working on bottles with similar levels – or higher – for our Dove, TRESemmé and Omo brands, among others.
We have been involved in Brazil’s recycling landscape since the 1990s. For instance, through a long-running partnership with retailer Grupo Pão de Açúcar (Casino), we have invested in almost 100 drop-off stations with all the collected material donated to cooperatives.
Our ultimate aim is to increase the demand for recycled plastic which will, in turn, increase recycling rates. But we are not driving this alone. Last year, we joined a network – to “managed by ABIPLAST, Brazil’s plastic industry association – which is focused on increasing recycling rates. This includes resin manufacturers, converters, recyclers, consumer goods companies and cooperatives.
It’s early days but the infrastructure is developing and the demand for PCR is growing. What’s more, consumers are becoming more aware of the need to recycle. The opportunities are there for everyone to benefit.