Waste & packaging

Unilever's work on waste & packaging supports

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Waste & packaging

We purchase over 2 million tonnes of packaging a year. Increasing resource scarcity means it is more urgent than ever to find solutions to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover ‘post-consumer’ waste and move towards a more circular economy.

Every minute – less than the time it will take you to read this section – the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic is leaking into streams and rivers, ultimately ending up in the sea. Just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, a third is left in fragile ecosystems and 40% ends up in landfill.1

As a consumer goods company, we’re acutely aware of the causes and consequences of the linear “take-make-dispose” model. And we want to change it. Moving away from the linear model of consumption is a key priority in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 – Sustainable Consumption & Production.

The business case is clear. Plastic packaging waste represents an $80 billion loss to the global economy every year. The benefits of the circular economy approach are clear for business and the environment – the more effective use of materials means lower costs and less waste. It means new sources of value for customers and consumers, better risk management of raw materials, and improved approaches to the supply chain.

The waste pillar of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan contributes primarily to two of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Responsible Consumption & Production (SDG 12) and Life Below Water (SDG 14).

1Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Our strategy

We are accelerating our efforts towards a more circular economy.

recycling in brazil

What is the purpose of packaging?

Packaging serves many purposes. It protects products, keeping them safe from contamination. It allows us to display vital information about how to use and dispose of goods safely. Packaging makes it easy to dispense a product, or to reseal it after use, and can help preserve a product for extended periods. It also offers convenience and portion control to match the different needs of consumers. In developing and emerging countries, many products such as laundry detergent and shampoos are sold in single-use sachets to make them more accessible and affordable for people on low incomes.

However, packaging can often end up as waste in landfill or as litter. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.1

Public concern is also growing about the resources being used to produce packaging, the recyclability of packaging and the volume of packaging. This concern has led to commitments by some leading manufacturers, including Unilever, to minimise resource inputs and increase the recyclability of packaging.

From a purely business perspective, discarding plastic makes zero sense. Plastic packaging waste represents an $80 billion loss to the global economy every year. A more circular approach is needed, where we not only use less packaging, but design the packaging we do use so it can be reused or recycled. In a circular economy, materials are regenerated and constantly flow around a ‘closed loop’ system, rather than being used a few times and then discarded. It means that the value of materials, including plastics, is not lost by being thrown away.

1Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A refreshed strategy

In 2016 we reviewed our sustainable packaging strategy, acknowledging the growing concerns of governments, NGOs and the general public on the issue of packaging waste in the environment. We assessed our achievements so far and identified areas where we could push ourselves even further. Our refreshed strategy commits us to accelerate our efforts towards a circular economy. Materials can be regenerated and constantly flow round a ‘closed loop’ system, rather than being used once and then discarded. This includes how we manage and use packaging waste once the consumer has finished with it.

We want to help lead the way towards a circular plastics economy. So, in January 2017, we committed to ensuring that 100% of our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. This target builds on our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan targets of halving the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020 and increasing the recycled plastic content in our packaging to 25% by 2025.

As part of our latest target, we will ensure that there are established, proven examples of it being commercially viable for plastics re-processors to recycle the material and make it technically possible for all our plastic packaging to be reused or recycled.

In developing markets, where sachets are most popular, infrastructure for recycling is often limited and leftover sachets can end up in landfill, or littering the streets, waterways and oceans. Over the last four years, we have co-developed a new technology using a chemical process called CreaSolv™. The technology produces quality polymers that can be used to make plastic that can be used again and again – offering the potential for a circular economy model.

We have proven through large scale industrial trails that CreaSolv™ is a technically viable solution to recycling sachets. We will be trialling the use of CreaSolv™ at a commercial scale at our Indonesian pilot plant in 2018.

We're collaborating with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and their New Plastics Economy initiative, by committing to publish the full “palette” of plastics materials that we use in our packaging by 2020, to help create the Global Plastics Protocol - a plastics protocol for the industry. Focusing on the three themes of recycling, re-use and recyclability, the new plastics economy represents systems-level change, and working with others in the plastic packaging sector is critical to its success.

Our commitment

We aim to halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020. Our environmental targets are expressed on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product. We have taken a lifecycle approach with a baseline of 2010.

Progress to date

We have reduced our waste footprint, versus our 2010 baseline, by 29% per consumer use in 2017.*

In addition, we have made a significant reduction in reducing waste from manufacturing. In 2017 we achieved a reduction in total waste of 98% per tonne of production since 2008.

*Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010 and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product.

Independently assured by PwC

Future challenges

To move to a circular economy approach we will need to fundamentally rethink the way we design our products and packaging. This means carefully considering the systems in which our products flow.

We hope that CreaSolv™ will transform sachets from a global problem into a sustainable economic opportunity. But as an industry, we need to build a recycling infrastructure for sachet collection that supports the process - creating a circular model all can share.

No business can create a circular economy in isolation - nor can we simply 'join' a wider circular economy until it actually exists. There are many elements which are outside our control, such as selective collection of packaging waste, little or no infrastructure and limited investment in the waste industry. We will continue to work with other businesses and urge governments to implement policies and frameworks that facilitate this fundamental shift.


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Taking action

We minimise waste by reducing, reusing and recycling our own waste and encouraging consumers to do the same. We want to move towards a more circular economy, enabling more packaging to either remain in loops or have the best possible opportunity to be recycled.


Targets & performance

We have an ambitious commitment to halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products.


Waste & packaging
Our commitment

Halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020.*

Our performance

In 2017, our waste impact has reduced by 29% since 2010.*

Our perspective

We are more than halfway towards meeting our 2020 commitment to reduce the waste associated with the disposal of our products. Our total footprint per consumer use has reduced by 29% since 2010* as we design packs which use less materials and as recycling rates increase.

We are making strong progress against our commitment in areas where we have direct control such as in reducing waste in our own operations and in the design of our products. For example, we have removed thousands of tonnes of plastic from our Lifebuoy soap bar wrappers and Sunsilk shampoo bottles.

Infrastructure improvements in recycling and recovery have also contributed to our performance, however, we are finding the challenge for post-consumer waste is in encouraging consumers to recycle, and having the right infrastructure in place to ensure materials are recovered and re-used.

We work in partnership with others, including through industry collaboration initiatives, to stimulate recycling and recovery infrastructure, particularly for materials which are more complex to recycle, such as sachets in developing countries. For example, we are using pyrolysis to convert sachet waste into an industrial fuel. We have also co-developed a new technology using a chemical process called CreaSolv™. The aim is to recycle high-value polymers from used sachets, so they can be used again to make recyclable plastic packaging – offering the potential for a circular-economy model for sachets.

In 2016 we reviewed our packaging waste strategy, and committed to including at least 25% recycled plastic in our plastic packaging by 2025. In 2017 we further committed to ensuring that all our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

*Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010 and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product.


  • Achieved 4

  • On-Plan 6

  • Off-Plan 0

  • %

    Of target achieved 3

Key to our performance
  • Achieved

    This is the number of targets we have achieved

  • On-Plan

    This is the number of targets we are on track to achieve

  • Off-Plan

    This is the number of targets we are currently not on track

  • %

    Of target achieved

    This is the percentage of the target we are on track to achieve

Our targets

Please see Independent Assurance for more details of our assurance programme across the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Reduce waste from manufacturing

  • By 2020 total waste sent for disposal will be at or below 2008 levels despite significantly higher volumes.

This represents a reduction of around 40% per tonne of production.

Versus a 1995 baseline, this represents an 80% reduction per tonne of production and a 70% absolute reduction.

We achieved our target in 2012 with 76,000 fewer tonnes of total waste than in 2008, a 51% reduction per tonne of production.

In 2017 we disposed of 147,444 fewer tonnes of total waste than in 2008, a 98% reduction per tonne of production.

Compared to 1995, this represents a 99.3% reduction in absolute terms.


  • By 2015 all manufacturing sites will achieve zero non-hazardous waste to landfill.

We achieved zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across our global factory network by end 2014. In 2017, we sent 0.07% of the non-hazardous waste generated in the year to landfill from 11 of our sites.*


  • All newly built factories will aim to generate less than half the waste of those in our 2008 baseline.

New factories in Turkey, Vietnam, India and Iran started production in 2017. When fully operational each aims to generate less than half the waste of those in our 2008 baseline.


Our Perspective

Although we achieved our waste disposal target in 2012 – eight years ahead of schedule – we have gone further, continuing to drive improvements. In 2017 we disposed of 147,444 fewer tonnes of total waste than in 2008 - a 98% reduction per tonne of production.

We achieved our 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 since has been 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 2017, 11 sites disposed of a small amount of non-hazardous waste to landfill. We take any lapses very seriously. We are confident our overall achievement is still industry leading and we have robust procedures in place to highlight any issues so that remedial action can be swiftly taken.

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.

* 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. 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.

Independently assured by PwC

Going beyond zero waste to landfill

Reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging

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

By the end of 2018, we will publish the percentage of our plastic packaging portfolio that is fully recyclable. We are exploring new technologies, business models and distribution mechanisms, as well as alternative materials, to drive our progress on developing further recyclable, reusable and compostable packaging solutions.*


Our Perspective

Treating plastic packaging as a valuable resource is a key priority in accelerating our efforts to a circular economy.

In January 2017 we announced that all our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. As part of this target, we will ensure it is technically possible and commercially viable for our plastic packaging to be reused or recycled. We have also committed to invest in proving, and then sharing with the industry, a technical solution to recycle multi-layered sachets, particularly for coastal areas which are most at risk of plastics leaking into the ocean.

*We are further developing our data collection and reporting systems to enable independent assurance in the future.

Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a more circular economy

Reduce packaging

By 2020 we will reduce the weight of packaging that we use by one third through:

  • Lightweighting materials
  • Optimising structural and material design
  • Developing concentrated versions of our products
  • Eliminating unnecessary packaging

The weight per consumer use has decreased by 13% in 2017 compared to 2010.


Our Perspective

Our results show that our efforts in the last few years to reduce packaging through innovations, lightweighting and material switching are now becoming visible. The results are also impacted by the effect of acquisitions and disposals.

Commercialising MuCell™ moulding technology has allowed us to reduce the plastic component in bottles by up to 15% versus the previous bottle. We estimate that this will bring significant reductions in the amount of plastics we use once applied to other products. Other examples of reduction initiatives include the use of compression injection technology in many of our tubs, conversion of bottles to flexible refill pouches and smart use of design strategy and technology enabling us to reduce layers within many of our sachets.

Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a more circular economy

Recycle packaging

  • Working in partnership with industry, governments and NGOs, we aim to increase recycling and recovery rates on average by 5% by 2015 and by 15% by 2020 in our top 14 countries. For some this means doubling or even tripling existing recycling rates. We will make it easier for consumers to recycle our packaging by using materials that best fit the end-of-life treatment facilities available in their countries.

8% increase in recycling and recovery rates in 2017, over the 2010 average Recycling and Recovery Index (RRI), averaged across our top 14 countries.


  • By 2025 we will increase the recycled plastic material content in our packaging to 25%. This will act as a catalyst to increase recycling rates.

Around 4,850 tonnes of post-consumer recycled materials incorporated into our rigid plastic packaging in 2017.


Our Perspective

Recycling and recovery is a challenging target because we are reliant on public policy, infrastructure and consumer engagement. Despite this, we have seen an improvement in our recycling rate. The volume of materials recycled or recovered increased by 8% over 2016-2017 compared to our 2010 baseline.

In 2017 we saw an increase in the volume of post-consumer recycled materials incorporated into our rigid plastic packaging. For example, in Argentina, we increased the content of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) in Cif bottles to 50% in 2017.

Availability of recycled content at an acceptable quality level remains a key challenge for us in many of our markets around the world. We have therefore started collaboration initiatives focused on producing quality recyclates which we are trialling in many of our packaging formats.

Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a more circular economy

Tackle sachet waste

Our goal is to develop and implement a sustainable business model for handling our sachet waste streams by 2015.

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We continue to investigate the potential of new technologies in both developed and developing markets. Progress has been slower than we originally anticipated, however we feel that we are two thirds of the way there and will have a viable solution in the near future.


Our Perspective

Our aim is to develop a closed loop system for sachet waste. This will allow us to continue to provide the price and convenience of sachets to low-income consumers, while tackling the environmental issues associated with their use. These include litter and recyclability.

Over the last four years, we have co-developed a new technology using a chemical process called CreaSolv™. The technology produces quality polymers that can be used to make plastic that can be used again and again – offering the potential for a circular economy model. We have proven through large scale industrial trails that CreaSolv™ is a technically viable solution to recycling sachets.

We will be trialling the use of CreaSolv™ at a commercial scale at our Indonesian pilot plant in 2018. As an industry, we need to build a recycling infrastructure for sachet collection that supports the process - creating a circular model all can share. We hope that CreaSolv™ will transform sachets from a global problem into a sustainable economic opportunity.

Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a more circular economy

Eliminate PVC

We will eliminate PVC (polyvinyl chloride) from all packaging by 2012 (where technical solutions exist).

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99% of PVC packaging removed from our portfolio by end 2012.


Our Perspective

We have made very good progress in eliminating PVC from our packaging, including from the acquisitions we have made in recent years.

We have a robust system in place to ensure that any PVC entering the business through acquisitions is swiftly dealt with, and where there are no viable replacement options, such as the PVC used within the seals of metal lids, we are working with suppliers to develop appropriate technology to replace these materials. Replacement solutions can take many years to develop as they need to meet the functional requirements of manufacturing, filling and consumer use.

Reduce office waste

  • In our top 21 countries, at least 90% of our office waste will be reused, recycled or recovered by 2015 and we will send zero waste to landfill by 2017.

100% of our office waste was reused, recycled or recovered and we sent zero waste to landfill in our top 21 countries in 2017.*


  • By 2015 we will reduce paper consumption by 30% per head in our top 21 countries.

We achieved our target in 2013 with paper consumed per occupant 37% lower than 2010. In 2016 we reached a 62% reduction against our 2010 baseline.


  • We will eliminate paper in our invoicing, goods receipt, purchase order processes, financial reporting and employee expense processing by 2015, where legally allowable and technically possible.
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By 2015, 73% of our in-scope Business and Finance Services processes were completed electronically.


Our Perspective

By the end of 2017, we achieved our target of zero waste to landfill at our in-scope sites in our top 21 countries.* We have extended our waste reduction efforts beyond our top 21 countries and an additional 33 sites are now zero waste to landfill.

Paper consumption per occupant is now 62% lower than our 2010 baseline in our top 21 countries and we will continue to push consumption lower.

Although 73% of our in-scope transactions (excluding financial reporting and employee expense processes) were completed electronically in 2015, subsequent progress has been challenging. Some countries do not yet allow electronic invoicing and we have found there is still a reluctance amongst some suppliers to accept e-invoicing. Despite these challenges, we remain committed to eliminating paper in our business and financial services processes.

* In-scope sites are where we either own or hold the majority lease and as such are able to influence the handling of waste. Zero non-hazardous waste to landfill is achieved and maintained when 0.5% or less of non-hazardous waste (non-hazardous disposed waste and recycled and recovered waste) across all in scope non-manufacturing sites is sent to landfill or to incineration without energy recovery.

Reducing waste from our offices
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