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Unilever Global Change location

Three Signal toothpaste tubes forming shape of recycling logo. We’re shifting our oral care portfolio to recyclable tubes.

“Why isn’t all your packaging recyclable?”

We’re completely rethinking the role of plastic in our business. And this is one of the questions we’re asked most frequently. Here’s our response.

Recycling plays an important role in keeping plastic waste out of the environment but we know that, on its own, it won’t solve the problem.

We already use a lot of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic to make new packaging – so we can move away from virgin material – and we’re trying to use even more. We estimate that mechanically recycled plastic has a 50% lower greenhouse gas footprint than virgin plastic.

The only way we can do that is if there’s more PCR in the system for us to buy and use. As a result, it's up to us to design packaging that can be recycled, so it can more easily go back into the ‘loop’ to make more. To that end, we helped create the Consumer Goods Forum’s Golden Design Rules for plastic packaging, which aim to accelerate progress towards using less and better plastic.

In 2019, we cracked the tricky problem of recycling black plastic bottles. Previously, they were impossible to mechanically detect and sort. But we developed a detectable black pigment for our high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles so they can now be ‘seen’ by recycling plant scanners. We made the technology available to everybody and now, in many places, it’s becoming the industry norm.

But making product packaging recyclable doesn’t automatically mean it will get recycled. That requires the infrastructure being in place to collect, sort and process.

We operate in 190 countries and the infrastructure for recycling plastic varies enormously across them. One of the greatest challenges we face is closing the gap between what is technically recyclable and what is actually recycled.

Right now, about 70% of our packaging is technically recyclable yet only half is recyclable in practice. So while we’re continuing to make progress on technical recyclability, we’re also working with local governments and other organisations to improve recycling infrastructure.

Ramping up our efforts around collection and processing

We have a goal to help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell. Our business in India was the first to do this, and we have roadmaps in place with partners in Brazil, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, the UK and US.

These roadmaps include direct investments and partnerships in waste collection and processing, building capacity by buying recycled plastics, and supporting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes in which we directly pay for the collection of our packaging.

We’re developing a technology-led solution in Indonesia, where we’re supporting urban communities to develop systems to collect and sell waste. A digital platform called ‘Google My Business’ enables consumers to find their nearest waste banks via Google Maps. Currently, around 800 waste banks are searchable – the aim is to get this to 2,000.

We also need to consider the impact of the plastic system on people’s livelihoods. In some markets, people make a living by sorting waste. We want to help these workers be part of a safe, formal recycling system. In India, for example, we’re working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to protect the livelihoods of informal waste collectors, who help segregate, collect and recycle packaging.

The partnership has reached more than 33,000 households and collected 2,500 tonnes of plastic waste so far and will scale up to include more households in the coming years. We’re using what we’ve learned and replicating our work with UNDP with other partners in countries such as Pakistan.

Collaboration is key. Design for recyclability sits with businesses. Then we need to work with governments to achieve more ambitious recycling targets at a national level through, for example, plastic pacts. Collective action will help unlock further investment in recycling infrastructure which, in turn, will incentivise more businesses to act.

Toothpaste tubes

Toothpaste tubes are a significant contributor to the planet’s plastic crisis. Made from a combination of plastic and aluminium, they are difficult to recycle – resulting in billions being thrown into landfills every year. But we’re changing that. By 2025, we plan to shift our entire portfolio – including Close Up, Pepsodent and Signal – to recyclable tubes. This means over 12,000 tonnes of plastic will become recyclable. We started with Signal in France last year. Its new tubes are made with high-density polyethylene (HDPE), one of the most recyclable plastics in the world. And as the new technology is using the thinnest plastics tubes available in the toothpaste market, less plastic is needed for each tube.

Read more

Recyclable triggers

Until recently, the triggers on our home care spray bottles weren’t recyclable. That’s because they consist of multiple components made from various types of plastic that were difficult to separate in the waste recycling streams. So, our R&D and Procurement Packaging teams worked with supplier Silgan Dispensing Systems to develop a fully recyclable trigger, using only one type of plastic. We’re currently implementing the recyclable triggers in our home care products – including Cif, Domestos, Lysoform and Lifebuoy – across Europe.

Our plastic targets

By 2025 we will:

  • Halve the amount of virgin plastic we use in our packaging and achieve an absolute reduction of more than 100,000 tonnes in plastic use
  • Help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell
  • Ensure that 100% of our plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • Increase the use of post-consumer recycled plastic in our packaging to at least 25%.

Discover more about how we’re rethinking plastic packaging