The world is asking big questions on climate change, broken food systems and discrimination. Through collaboration, science and digital technologies, our R&D teams are working to find solutions that deliver answers, make people’s lives better and positively impact the planet.
Working alongside two partners – carbon recycling company LanzaTech and India Glycols, a manufacturer of green technology-based chemicals – we have produced a surfactant made from carbon emissions.
Surfactants are a key ingredient for creating the foam and cleaning action of many household cleaning and laundry products. They are typically derived from fossil fuels, but this new process means we can now make them using recycled carbon.
There are three stages to the process. LanzaTech first captures the industrial emissions at a steel mill in Beijing and converts the waste gases into ethanol. India Glycols then converts the ethanol into ethylene oxide, which is used to make a range of ingredients, including surfactants. We then use this surfactant in the manufacture of our new OMO (Persil) laundry capsules at our Hefei factory in China.
The process LanzaTech is using to create ethanol from captured carbon cuts the greenhouse gas emissions by 82% compared to the traditional fossil-fuel process.
The new limited-edition OMO capsules launched in China on 22 April – at no extra cost to consumers – marking the first time that a surfactant made using captured carbon emissions has come onto the market in a cleaning product.
“Advancements in technology like this means we can now reinvent the chemistry of our products,” says Peter ter Kulve, President of our Home Care division. “Instead of valuable carbon being released directly into the atmosphere, we can capture it and recycle it in our products in place of using fossil fuels.
“We want to make sustainability easy for everyone that uses our products. New innovations like this help move our iconic cleaning brands away from fossil fuels without compromising on performance or affordability. We’re excited by the potential that this breakthrough represents for future innovations across our portfolio and our industry.”
We’re excited by the potential that this breakthrough represents for future innovations across our portfolio and our industry.Peter ter Kulve, President, Unilever’s Home Care division
Turning off the tap for fossil carbon
The launch of the new OMO capsules hit the shelves just as independent researchers Nova Institute publishes a first-of-its-kind report examining an overlooked aspect of climate change: embedded carbon.
The report calculates that 450 million tonnes of carbon are used each year to create organic chemicals and derived materials that go into everyday products from detergents to clothes, car tyres to mobile phones. If these products aren’t recycled or renewed at their end-of-life stage, most of this embedded carbon will end up in the atmosphere as CO2.
As the world focuses on decarbonising energy and mobility, this hidden problem is yet to be tackled. With demand for these products on the rise, the report highlights a radical transformation of this sector is needed with renewable carbon production to be increased by a factor of 15 by 2050.
As well as demonstrating the extent of the challenge, the report outlines two ambitious scenarios for 2050 that includes the total phase-out of additional fossil carbon resources. It also identifies three primary sources of alternative renewable carbon sources: recycling, biomass and CO2 capture.
The Carbon Rainbow
Our partnership with LanzaTech and India Glycols is part of our strategy which, at its heart, has the ambition to replace 100% of the carbon derived from fossil fuels in our cleaning and laundry product formulations with renewable or recycled carbon by 2030.
Central to Clean Future is the ‘Carbon Rainbow’, a novel approach to diversify the carbon we use. Non-renewable fossil sources of carbon (identified in the Carbon Rainbow as black carbon) will be replaced using captured CO2 (purple carbon), plants and biological sources (green carbon), marine sources such as algae (blue carbon), and carbon recovered from waste materials (grey carbon).
In 2020, our homecare factory in Pozzilli, Italy was set for closure. Now it is destined for sustainable success as a state-of-the-art plastic recycling centre based on a zero-waste, no redundancies ambition.
In May 2021, our Climate Transition Action Plan (CTAP) will go before a shareholder vote at our Annual General Meeting. The plan has now been published - here’s Unilever CEO Alan Jope to discuss it in more detail.