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30-foot sculpture ‘Turn off the plastic tap’ by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong, made with plastic waste from Kibera slums.

Using our voice to build a circular plastic economy

Average read time: 5 minutes

Plastic pollution is too big for us to solve alone. We’re advocating for systems change to create a circular economy for plastics.

Five stainless steel bottles for Unilever brands Alberto Balsam, Radox and Simple that are being used in the Asda refill–reuse trial

Plastic is a valuable material but plastic pollution must stop. To achieve a circular economy for plastic, we need strong commitments to be supported by systemic change – and to achieve this, we need a coordinated international response. That’s why we're working with suppliers, governments and other partners to advocate for global action and well-designed regulations – for example, a legally binding UN treaty on plastic pollution – that will help to create the right enabling environment for a circular economy, drive positive environmental outcomes and support sustainable business growth.

Advocating for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

We believe optimal EPR schemes– in which companies like Unilever pay for the collection and processing of packaging – can be a game-changer in tackling packaging waste. EPR systems can be industry-led voluntary programmes or are mandated and underpinned by policy and regulation. Well-designed EPR schemes can help to improve recycling systems (closing the gap between packaging that is ‘technically’ recyclable and packaging that is ‘actually’ recycled), by ensuring that money is invested back into waste management and packaging innovation, and hold businesses to account for the packaging choices they make. Critically, EPR schemes can provide governments and the packaging value chain with transparency over what packaging is being put onto the market, and how it’s being managed.

We support EPR policies that reflect the unique waste management requirements in each country, both through our own actions and through our global partnerships. For example, we signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s public statement supporting the use of EPR, alongside industry peers. As more governments introduce mandatory EPR schemes, it is crucial the regulations that underpin EPR are designed to deliver strong environmental outcomes and improve transparency. We also believe social inclusiveness and fairness are paramount in markets with informal waste sector involvement.

In 2020, we endorsed the Consumer Goods Forum position on the design of EPR schemes. This paper provides a shared perspective on the guiding principles and key design parameters of optimal EPR policies.

Creating a global treaty on plastic pollution

Tackling plastic pollution needs big interventions at every point in the plastics system, from new technology and manufacturing innovation, to better recycling and collection infrastructure. We need businesses and governments to work together, across national boundaries, to create a coordinated response that deals with the problem both at source and at scale.

That’s why we’re calling for an ambitious and legally binding UN treaty, as a member of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty – an advocacy group convened by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

More than 100 organisations have now joined the Business Coalition to support the development of an ambitious and effective treaty, from brand owners like Unilever through to retailers, financial institutions, packaging producers and waste management companies.

Read more about the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty.

To drive change at the scale and speed required to end plastic pollution, the UN Plastics Treaty must set legally binding global rules. We’re at a critical point in time to lay the policy foundations that will translate ambition into action

Richard Slater, Chief R&D Officer

Partnering for a circular plastics economy

We want to make sure the systems our products flow into are robust – and ideally, circular. That means shifting the economy from a finite and linear – take, make, dispose – model to a circular approach that protects the environment and protects our resources whilst supporting a growing population.

Some significant challenges remain, including the selective collection of packaging waste, little or no waste infrastructure, limited investment in the waste industry and regulatory barriers to using recycled plastic. We believe that governments can also play a role in encouraging behaviour change and increasing recycling rates.

We’re long-term collaborators with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (Opens in a pop-up window ) and its New Plastics Economy initiative (Opens in a pop-up window ), which sets clear targets to achieve a circular economy for plastic so that it never becomes waste or pollution.

In 2018, we joined around 250 packaging producers, brands, retailers, recyclers, governments and NGOs in signing The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which aims to eradicate plastic waste and pollution at source. Now, the Global Commitment has mobilised over 500 signatories, representing 20% of all packaging produced globally.

We are also members of the Consumer Goods Forum Plastic Waste Coalition of Action, which brings together the biggest players in our industry to collaborate on progress towards a circular economy for plastic packaging. We contributed to the Consumer Goods Forum’s Golden Design Rules for optimal plastic design, production and recycling

Across the world we’ve signed twelve plastics pacts – such as the European Plastics Pact. These pacts bring together national governments, NGOs and business as they join forces to avoid plastic waste across their value chains. Signatories commit to bold targets for 2025, and progress will be monitored and reported upon annually.

We’re also contributing to The Ocean Fund (Opens in a pop-up window ), managed by Circulate Capital, to support better investment and infrastructure in South and South East Asia, as well as Latin America, where ocean plastic pollution is particularly acute. Together with other major consumer goods and beverage companies, collectively we are investing USD $100 million in waste collection, management and recycling infrastructure, with a focus on India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Colombia.

Unilever has committed to ambitious 2025 goals to tackle plastic pollution alongside other leading businesses and governments, all working towards a shared vision for a circular economy for plastics. To make this a reality, we must all work together to urgently eliminate the plastics we don’t need and innovate, so the plastics we do need can be reused, recycled, or composted, so they can be safely and easily circulated – keeping them in the economy and out of the environment.

Andrew Morlet, CEO Ellen MacArthur Foundation
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