With ambitious plans to transform the use of plastic and cut waste in our packaging, here are some recent innovations that are helping us make progress towards a truly circular economy.
In 2019, we came out with an ambitious new commitment: to halve our use of virgin plastic in our packaging, and to help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell… all by 2025.
We’re making progress. We have stepped up our use of post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR). Around 11% of our total plastic packaging footprint now consists of recycled plastic – a significant increase compared to last year and strong progress towards our goal to use at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025. Our brands are leading the way – Dove, for example, is introducing 100% recycled plastic bottles in North America and Europe.
We continue to test new business models for refillable and reusable packaging, and we’re sharing our findings publicly.
When it comes to our goal to collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell, we need to think much bigger than our own operations. Because in some parts of the world, the infrastructure is advanced, whereas in others it’s almost non-existent.
To address this particular problem, we have come up with country-specific action plans and we continue to partner and collaborate so we can make more of a change, more quickly.
This includes direct investments and partnerships in waste collection and processing, building capacity by buying recycled plastics, and supporting extended producer responsibility schemes in which we directly pay for the collection of our packaging.
Here are just a few examples of the partnerships we have set up or joined.
Developing holistic solutions in India and Pakistan
This year in India, four years ahead of plan, we will collect and process more than 100% of the plastic packaging we sell. Since 2018, Hindustan Unilever has facilitated the safe disposal of more than 120,000 tonnes of post-consumer-use waste. And despite the Covid pandemic, we continue to step up our efforts. Through partnerships with various organisations and support from municipal corporations, we’re helping to improve waste collection in cities across the country.
In Mumbai, we have partnered with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and consulting firm Xynteo to create material recovery facilities. The aim here is to demonstrate the feasibility of inclusive end-to-end waste management solutions.
We’re also working with the Education Department of Maharashtra on its ‘Waste No More’ initiative. This is a specially curated digital school curriculum that focuses on the importance of the segregation, collection and safe disposal of waste. The programme reached nearly 100,000 children during its pilot and is currently being expanded across the state.
In a separate collaboration, Unilever Pakistan has partnered with UNDP to make Rahim Yar Khan a zero plastic waste city. The initiative will test solutions to reduce plastic waste and turn it into a resource. The ultimate aim is to create a circular economy system for plastics waste management that can be replicated across the country.
Investing in waste management systems in Asia
Together with other large consumer goods companies such as PepsiCo, P&G and Coca-Cola, we have collectively pledged a total of US$100 million to the Circulate Capital Ocean Fund – the world’s first investment fund dedicated to preventing ocean plastic.
By demonstrating the investibility of the waste management and recycling sectors, Circulate Capital’s aim is to attract the billions of dollars of institutional investment needed to scale companies and infrastructure across South and South-East Asia. These regions contribute disproportionately to ocean plastic pollution, primarily because they lack the infrastructure to manage the problem.
The fund provides financing to waste management, recycling and circular economy start-ups and SMEs in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, helping solutions to scale and replicate by connecting them to supply chains, including those of the world’s leading companies.
One such investment is Recyckal, India’s first waste-commerce company. Recyckal provides end-to-end digital solutions that connect waste generators, processors, recyclers and brand owners. It also facilitates material flows and transactions across the waste management and recycling value chain.
Using technology in China and Indonesia
In China, we teamed up with the Alibaba Group to create an Al-enabled recycling system for plastic bottles. The initiative launched with a pilot where we installed 20 recycling machines in offices and community spaces in two of China’s largest cities, Shanghai and Hangzhou. The machines automatically identify the plastic the bottle is made of, sort and store it, so it can be collected and returned to recycling centres and fast-tracked for reuse. Consumers earn Unilever coupons and green energy points on the Alipay ‘Ant Forest’ for each bottle they deposit.
In Indonesia, we have helped communities in 18 cities develop systems where they can collect and sell waste. We’re using ‘Google My Business’, a platform that enables consumers to find the location of nearby waste banks directly on Google Maps. At the moment, almost 800 waste banks are searchable on the digital tool. Our aim is to make 2,000 available.
Increasing recycling in North America
In North America, we’re investing $15 million in the , to help recycle an estimated 60,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste annually by 2025 – an amount that’s equivalent to more than half of our plastics footprint in the region.
This private equity fund acquires and grows companies across the value chain working to increase recycling and keep valuable materials in the circular economy and out of landfills.
The investment will help secure additional PCR plastic supply for our brands – including Dove, Hellmann’s and Seventh Generation, which already use 100% PCR bottles – and increase access to recycled plastic feedstock processed by the companies the fund invests in.
We’re also advocating for producer responsibility legislation that would significantly increase the broader investment needed from industry to transform the recycling system. This involves working with other major consumer goods companies through the to develop and promote a plan for brands to fund recycling infrastructure investment. In Canada, we participate in extended producer responsibility programmes in provinces where they are already established.
Supporting waste collection jobs in Africa
In Nigeria, together with FCDO and UK Aid as part of the TRANSFORM programme, we’re supporting the scale-up of waste collection company Wecyclers through a franchise model. This is helping individuals set up recycling enterprises, which in turn creates jobs, and increasing public awareness in communities about recycling and sustainability. The franchisees are given support in areas such as logistics, financial management and business planning.
In Kenya, together with the Global Innovation Fund (GIF), we’ve been working with Mr Green Africa, supporting the expansion of its collection network and processing capacity and capability. This has directly resulted in the launch of Kenya’s first homecare product packaging made out of 100% PCR that was locally collected and recycled.
In South Africa, we’re working with the African Reclaimers Organisation on a programme to improve the livelihoods of informal reclaimers – the backbone of the country’s recycling economy. The idea is to increase collection rates of recyclable material from households by recognising reclaimers, compensating them for their work and driving community behaviour change. We are advocating for this model to be integrated into the government’s national extended producer responsibility framework.
We have also partnered with Oxfam to support skills training and capacity building for recycling community-based organisations. The training involves basic business management and site operational procedures, as well as soft skills such as negotiation and collaboration.
Unilever and the Alibaba Group have created an Al-enabled recycling system that automatically identifies and sorts plastic packaging. Its aim is to speed high-grade plastic back into the circular economy and move China’s companies and consumers towards a waste-free world.
Using groundbreaking technology, we’re making a new generation of packaging from previously unrecyclable plastic waste which would ordinarily be thrown away.