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Waste-free world Strategy and goals

Transitioning to a circular economy approach is at the heart of our strategy for a waste-free world.

This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • Responsible consumption and production

Average read time: 12 minutes

The resources we use to make and distribute our products – from raw ingredients to packaging materials – are precious. Yet in today's linear system, it’s all too easy to waste materials or ingredients in production, for products to lie unused in their pack, or packaging to end up being thrown away at the end of a product’s life. The sheer size of our business means we have a substantial waste footprint across our operations and our value chain.

We’re pursuing a circular economy approach – one in which resources are kept in use in a closed-loop system, rather than thrown away – across every aspect of our business. We want to reduce pressure on resources by keeping materials in use for as long as possible, continuously circling them around the system through recycling and reuse. This will help us cut our dependence on new raw materials, while putting previously wasted materials – like unwanted food or petroleum-based plastics – to good use.

We’ve set ambitious and interrelated goals to reduce our waste footprint. This includes goals across plastics and packaging, food waste and other waste from our factories and operations. We won’t achieve our strategy unless we tackle waste while finding innovative ways to reduce, reuse and repeatedly recycle materials in a circular system.

Recycling plant worker in Brazil holding a Comfort bottle

Innovation and new business models are radically changing the way we use plastic, and we’re supporting global efforts to eradicate plastic pollution. Our framework of ‘less plastic, better plastic, no plastic’ guides everything we do. It’s underpinned by goals to halve our use of virgin plastic, to ensure all our packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable and increasing the use of recycled plastics. We’re also supporting better waste infrastructure to collect and process plastic packaging.

These goals build on the progress we made towards our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (PDF 8.02MB) target to halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products. This included packaging reduction initiatives such as light weighting – reducing the weight – of aerosol deodorant cans.

In our own operations, we’re continuing more than a decade of work to send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill from our factories and other sites. And we’re finding innovative solutions to reuse, recycle or recover resources at every opportunity. Where we’ve not been able to find ways to refuse or reduce waste, we look for routes to reuse or recycle it. And if these solutions aren’t available, we recover energy from the waste.

As one of the largest food manufacturers in the world, we want to help protect and preserve food for everyone. We’re starting in our own operations by halving food waste from factory to shelf. Together with partners, we’re going far beyond this with innovative collaborations to reduce food loss and waste right across the food system. Our brands are finding new ways to put unwanted foods or by-products like unused ice creams, that would otherwise be wasted, to good use. We’re also inspiring and enabling consumers to cut their food waste footprint and be more resourceful with leftover food.

Our goals

By 2025 we will halve the amount of virgin plastic we use in our packaging.

We’re working to reduce plastic pollution through goals focused on an absolute reduction, using more recycled and less virgin plastic, improving the recyclability of our plastic and collecting more plastic than we sell.

Our goal of halving our use of virgin plastic requires us to redesign products by considering multiple-use packs, a wider use of refills, recycling the plastic already in use, and using post-consumer recycled materials in innovative ways. We’re also working on pioneering solutions through new business models.

In 2020, our virgin plastic packaging footprint (our total plastic packaging footprint minus packaging made of recycled plastic) was approximately 615,000 tonnes, which is 12% less than in 2018, our baseline year. To achieve our goal, we’re eliminating over 100,000 tonnes of plastic from our packaging by accelerating multiple-use packs and reusable, refillable, and no plastic product innovations. We’re also increasing our use of recycled materials, by giving plastic a value to ensure it can be collected and processed.

We’re working towards an absolute reduction by accelerating and scaling our less, better or no plastic innovations, such as Seventh Generation’s zero-plastic packaging range which is available online in the US, and uses reusable packaging made from steel. In the UK, we have partnered with Asda to launch our largest in-store refill pilot in Europe. And in Chile, we have partnered with social enterprise Algramo, to deliver refills directly to people’s homes.

Rethinking plastic packaging

By 2025 we will increase the recycled plastic material content in our packaging to 25%.

Whenever we use plastic, we make sure we’re choosing better options – that means recycled and recyclable plastics. We estimate that around half of our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable so far. We’re keeping plastics in the system, and out of the environment, by buying post-consumer recycled (PCR) content.

We’re ramping up how much recycled plastic we use in both global brands, such as Dove, and country-specific brands, such as Bango. In 2020, around 11% (76,000 tonnes) of our total plastic packaging footprint consisted of recycled plastic – over twice as much as the six months prior, and strong progress towards our goal to use at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025.

We want to use far more post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic in the future and recapture our own packaging. The biggest challenge is the limited availability of high-quality recycled waste materials (owing to a high demand on the market), particularly in developing and emerging markets.

To address this, we are working with others to develop the recycling industry. This will help to ensure better quality recycled materials come into the marketplace. We’re also working with others to tackle wider infrastructural issues such as local collection and sorting facilities – and to build the technical and commercial viability of reprocessing them at scale.

Rethinking plastic packaging

Help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell by 2025.

We can’t reach our ‘better plastic’ goals unless there’s enough high-quality post-consumer recycled materials available. There’s no shortage of plastic in the system – but there are some big challenges. Turning plastic waste and pollution into usable material relies on local collection and sorting facilities. There also needs to be technical innovation and new solutions to make collecting and reprocessing materials commercially viable.

We introduced this goal in 2019 to stimulate recycling in our markets. We are implementing a robust measurement approach to track collection and processing.

We’ve developed country-specific plans and we’re working with a large number of partner organisations to help collect and process plastic packaging, with programmes in multiple countries, including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, UK and US. This includes direct investments and partnerships in waste collection and processing, buying recycled plastics, and through supporting well-designed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes in which we directly pay for the collection of our packaging.

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. We’re using what we’ve learnt and we're replicating our work with UNDP with other partners in countries such as Pakistan.

In Indonesia, we have supported communities in 18 cities to develop systems where they can collect and sell waste. We’re using a platform called ‘Google My Business’, which enables people to access the locations of nearby waste banks via Google Maps.

Rethinking plastic packaging

By 2025 all of our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable.

In 2017, as part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we were the first company in our industry to commit to ensuring that 100% of our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. We now have accurate data for around 80% of the sales volume in scope for plastic packaging reporting. Based on this, our total plastic packaging footprint is 690,000 tonnes, of which 52% was reusable, recyclable or compostable in practice and at scale (i.e actual recyclability).

We’re doing everything in our power to help bring about a refill-reuse revolution. We’re working on ways that shoppers can buy one container and refill it over and over again. Refills can be bought online or in a shop, or through in-store dispensing machines. A service could pick up empty containers, replenish them and deliver them back. Or people can return packaging at a store or drop-off point, as part of a deposit-return scheme.

We’ve learnt there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We’ve appointed dedicated in-house teams to build expertise, test, learn and refine different approaches. More of our brands are becoming available through refill stations, with pilot projects exploring how to make refilling our products easy, affordable and desirable. Together with major supermarkets we’re trialling refill projects in Colombia, France, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and the UK.

We are also experimenting with home refill solutions. Using an app means a refill is one swipe away for customers in Chile. Together with social enterprise Algramo, people can order cleaning or laundry product refills to be delivered to their door by electric tricycle. People dispense the amount they need into reusable containers, and make a cash-free payment for their order.

There are plenty of technical challenges that we’re tackling in our ‘better plastic’ journey. Magnum became the first ice cream brand to use recycled polyproplene (rPP) plastic in its packaging. We used an innovative recycling process that transforms the plastic waste into a resin with the same characteristics as virgin food-grade resin. The advanced recycling technology – which makes this possible – transforms previously unrecyclable plastic waste into a valuable resource.

Improving waste infrastructure is key to us reaching our 100% recyclable goal and ensuring availability of recycled plastic. We’re continuing to make progress on technical recyclability (i.e. packaging designed for recycling but not yet recycled at scale). As recycling infrastructure improves across the markets we operate in, we expect an increase in our actual recyclability which will close the gap on what is technically recyclable. We’re helping to stimulate investment through our collection and processing target.

Our hope is that we can use our scale and reach to drive lasting change. We’re sharing the lessons that we’ve learnt along the way, with the aim of bringing everyone on board – including governments, retailers, manufacturers, delivery services, civil society organisations and, of course, consumers.

Rethinking plastic packaging

By 2025 we will halve food waste in our operations.

As one of the world’s biggest food producers, it’s our ambition to protect and preserve food for everyone by cutting food waste across the value chain.

Our five food loss and waste commitments include: halving food waste, engaging suppliers, zero waste to landfill/no good food destroyed, help food services through prevention and redistribution, and helping consumers at home through our brands. For example, Hellmann’s is using its role as a trusted brand in people's homes to inspire them to be more resourceful with food and waste less. The brand wants to see long-term change so is investing in a major behavioural study to uncover ways people can become more resourceful with their food at home and ultimately waste less.

We’re embracing innovative collaborations to drive impact in our business and beyond from production to retail and consumers, such as working with Too Good to Go on its first German ice cream label, Cremissimo – a new ice cream flavour that’s made from 40% would-be-wasted ice cream.

These partnerships have allowed us to uncover solutions beyond our business. Though they are diverse, they all reflect our commitment to the Champions 12.3 ‘Target, Measure, Act’ approach. By measuring our food waste footprint, we have been able to pinpoint the areas of waste where we need to drive change.

By disclosing our progress on tackling food loss and waste, we hope to inspire others across the value chain. The more we all disclose and share, the more driven the industry will be to perform – and continue to uncover innovative and unexpected partnerships to create real impact on this growing global crisis.

Tackling food waste

Maintain zero non-hazardous waste to landfill in our factories.

We achieved our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan target of zero non-hazardous waste to landfill one year early, at the end of 2014. We believe this was a first for a company of our scale in our industry. Our focus is now on maintaining zero non-hazardous waste to landfill, recognising that this is about an ongoing journey rather than achieving this for a moment in time.

In 2020, we maintained zero waste to landfill. 11 sites disposed of a small amount of non-hazardous waste to landfill, but this did not exceed our permitted threshold.1 While the amounts were small, we take any lapses very seriously. Over 90% of the non-hazardous waste sent to landfill was from manufacturing sites that we acquired in 2020. We are currently developing recycling pathways at these sites to divert the non-hazardous waste from landfill.

By replicating our zero-waste model in other parts of our business, nearly 400 additional non-manufacturing sites have also eliminated non-hazardous waste to landfill.

Towards waste-free manufacturing

1

We aim to maintain our achievement of zero non-hazardous waste to landfill (ZWL) across our manufacturing sites worldwide. However, incidents can occur where small amounts of non-hazardous waste are sent to landfill in error or because of operational changes e.g. Covid-19, acquisitions or supplier issues. We consider ZWL is maintained when less than 0.5% of non-hazardous waste is disposed to landfill in the 12-month period.