Waste & packaging

Unilever's work on waste & packaging supports

4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Select one of the goals to find out how we're taking action in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Find out how we’re realising the business opportunity from the SDGs
Responsible Consumption and Production

Responsible Consumption and Production

As a consumer goods company, we’re acutely aware of the causes and consequences of the ‘take-make-dispose’ model of consumption. And we want to change it.

The USLP is anchored on the need to decouple our business growth from our environmental impact – including how our products are made and used.

An essential part of this is using resources more efficiently during the making of our products – and we have set ourselves targets to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, water use and waste associated with manufacturing. Since 2008, we have cut CO2 from energy by 47%, water abstraction by 39% and total waste disposed by 98% per tonne of production.

While our efforts to use resources more efficiently in production are important, our biggest impacts come through the use of our products. That’s why we have committed to ensure 100% of our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, leading the way towards a more circular plastics economy (see also SDG14). We are also working to reduce the water and GHG impacts of products through innovations such as SmartFoam technology which reduces water use when rinsing clothes.

These changes are necessary – and they are also helping to drive business growth, because they connect with consumers. Unilever’s ‘Making Purpose Pay’ research shows that over 50% of consumers want to choose brands that are more sustainable, and that demand for sustainable products cuts across demographic and socio-economic groups.

Waste & packaging

Plastic has its place and that place is not in the environment. We want to keep this valuable material where it should be – in the circular economy, where it can be reused, recycled or composted.

Plastic has become an integral part of our lives. It protects products and makes them easy to dispense or reseal after use. But with that has emerged the enormous – and growing – problem of plastic waste. It is littering our environment, polluting our seas and killing aquatic life.

The challenge is that little plastic packaging is currently recycled, recyclable or reusable. The result is a significant economic loss for society and business. It is for these reasons that we have singled out plastic packaging as a principal risk for our business in 2019 in our Annual Report & Accounts. Urgent action is needed on multiple fronts. 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.

From a purely business perspective, discarding plastic makes zero sense. Plastic packaging waste represents an $80-$120 billion loss to the global economy every year according to the World Economic Forum. 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, recycled or composted.

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. A more circular use of materials means lower costs and less waste. It means new sources of value for our customers and consumers, better risk management of raw materials, and improved approaches to the supply chain.

The waste & packaging 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).

Our strategy

The waste & packaging system needs a fundamental rethink so we are accelerating our efforts towards a circular economy for plastic.

recycling in brazil

Four commitments & a clear framework: Less plastic. Better plastic. No plastic.

We're driving our approach through four ambitious commitments that will radically reshape our plastic use.

Our four commitments

By 2025, we will:

  • Halve the amount of virgin plastic we use in our packaging
  • 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 recycled plastic material content in our packaging to 25%.

By committing to halving our use of virgin plastic, we're ensuring there's less plastic entering the system – not least as we will make an absolute reduction of 100,000 tonnes in plastic use. And our commitment to collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell requires us to help collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually by 2025. We will achieve this through investment and partnerships to improve waste management infrastructure, purchasing and using recycled plastics, and through participating in extended producer responsibility schemes in which we directly pay for the collection of our packaging.

At the same time, we're working to make reusable, recyclable and compostable plastic packaging the norm so that it can stay in the circular economy. That begins by making it technically possible for all our plastic packaging to be reused or recycled – and demonstrating that there are established, proven examples of it being commercially viable for plastics re-processors to recycle the material.

We launched the first two commitments in October 2019. These complement the latter two commitments, which we made in January 2017. All four commitments build on the progress we’ve been making since we launched our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010.

Less plastic. Better plastic. No plastic.

To help deliver these commitments we have an internal framework: Less plastic. Better plastic. No plastic. The framework – which we implemented in 2017 – outlines our approach to how we will achieve our commitments and guides our innovation.

'Less plastic' is about cutting down how much we use. Since 2010 we've reduced the weight of our packaging by 20% through lightweighting and design improvements. For example, during 2019 we launched Cif ecorefill – a ten times concentrated refill that means consumers can buy one spray bottle to use for life. Made with 75% less plastic, Cif ecorefill attaches to current Cif Power & Shine bottles. The ecorefill is 100% recyclable once the plastic sleeves are removed. By the end of 2020, we’re aiming for all ecorefill and spray bottles to be made from 100% recycled plastic.

'Better plastics' is about making our products recyclable and eliminating problematic materials. Specifically, it’s about how we get recycled content into our packaging. A number of our brands are incorporating post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic in their products. Some of our packaging is now 100% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), such as our Cif Active Gel bottles in Argentina. Better plastics is also about working with governments and partners to build infrastructure to keep plastic in the economy and out of the environment. Our Community Waste Banks and CreaSolv® Recycling technology pilot plant in Indonesia are at the heart of these efforts.

'No plastics' is about thinking differently – using alternative materials such as aluminium, glass, paper and board where possible and removing plastic where it is not necessary, such as plastic stiffeners from soap bars. We have sold refills since 2012 and we’re exploring a range of refill-reuse business models. For example, we’re working with Indonesia’s Saruga packaging-free store in Bintaro on their biggest pilot product refillery to date. Since March 2020, people have been able to shop for 11 of our brands, buying as much or as little of the product as they want, using their own containers.

Collaborating to create systemic change

We're putting significant resource into tackling the issues associated with plastic packaging – often in partnership with others.

We’re long-term collaborators with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and their New Plastics Economy initiative. We joined around 250 packaging producers, brands, retailers, recyclers, governments and NGOs in signing The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in 2018, which aims to create ‘a new normal’ for plastic packaging. And in March 2020, we signed the European Plastics Pact – an initiative that brings together governments, NGOs and business to accelerate progress towards a circular economy where plastic is repurposed and reused rather than simply discarded.

This public–private coalition sees 15 governments and over 70 companies and organisations join forces in pledging to avoid plastic waste across their value chains. All participants have committed to hit four bold targets by 2025, and progress will be monitored and reported upon annually.

But more collaborations are needed if we are to move towards a circular economy. No business can do this alone.

Our waste & packaging pillar 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 32% per consumer use in 2019.*

In addition, we have made a significant reduction in reducing waste from manufacturing. In 2019 we achieved a reduction in total waste sent for disposal of 96% 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

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 over which we either have limited ability to improve or are outside of our control, such as selective collections of packaging waste, infrastructure, public policy, consumer engagement and limited investment in the waste industry. There has been a slowdown in global recycling rates but through our commitment to help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell, we aim to kickstart more recycling of the materials that are important to us. We’re working with a range of stakeholders and industry partners to advance our efforts in making our products recyclable and eliminating problematic materials.

We recognise the importance of recycling but we know it’s not the only solution. We are determined to reduce our use of single-use plastics by investing in alternative models of consumption which harness refills and reusable packaging, as well as alternative packaging solutions that do not use plastic at all.

To move to a circular economy approach, we will need to continue to rethink the way we design our products and packaging. This means carefully considering the systems in which our products flow, working with other businesses, and urging governments to implement policies and frameworks that facilitate this fundamental shift.

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.


Waste & packaging
Our commitment

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

Our performance

In 2019, our waste impact has reduced by 32% since 2010.*

Our perspective

Our total waste footprint per consumer use has reduced by 32% since 2010. We have made good progress in areas where we have direct control such as reducing waste in our own operations and alternative packaging design following our ‘less, better, no plastic’ framework.

For example, in 2019 we introduced Cif ecorefill, which uses 75% less plastic than a standard bottle. We also continued to step up our innovation to promote reuse and refills. As well as expanding our use of new models such as Loop™, we rolled out new refill stations for shampoo and laundry detergent across shops, universities and mobile vending machines in South-East Asia. We are also investing in alternative solutions to plastic sachets, including paper-based alternatives and refills, such as our Hair Refillery in the Philippines and our Love Beauty and Planet Refillery in Vietnam.

Building on progress made over the last few years, more of our brands increased their use of recycled plastic packaging in 2019. For example, our Cif Active Gel bottles are now made using 100% recycled plastic across the entire range. In 2019, Dove began launching 100% recycled plastic bottles where technically feasible, in North America and Europe by the end of 2019 – across all ranges (Dove, Dove Men+Care, and Baby Dove). Dove continues to search for solutions where recycled plastic is not currently technically feasible, including for caps and pumps.

As part of our commitment to use post-consumer recycled plastic in our packaging, we are also driving up the demand for recycled content. In turn, we expect to see an increase in both infrastructure and recycling and recovery rates for some of these materials over time. We’re working with Ioniqa, a Dutch start-up, to develop a technology that breaks down plastic to make it more recyclable. We are also experimenting with new formats that use alternative materials or have no packaging at all, such as refillable toothpaste tablets, cardboard deodorant sticks and bamboo toothbrushes.

In the areas beyond our direct control, progress has been slower, despite active lobbying to improve collection and recycling infrastructure. We have seen some infrastructure improvements in recycling and recovery, but these have been slower than we expected. Following a review of our portfolio and innovation roadmaps, and consideration of the external context, we do not expect to hit our halving waste target by the end of 2020. However, we will continue to accelerate our efforts on packaging redesign to encourage greater recyclability as well as working with partners to drive system change on recycling and recovery infrastructure.

* 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 3

  • Off-Plan 2

  • %

    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 & our metrics 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.

Measured against a baseline of 7.91 kg of total waste disposed per tonne of production in 2008.

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 2019 we disposed of 145,299 fewer tonnes of total waste than in 2008, a 96% reduction per tonne of production. This is a reduction of 7.61 kg of total waste disposed per tonne of production.

Compared to 1995, this represents a 98.8% 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 2019 we sent 0.1% of the non-hazardous waste generated in the year to landfill from seven of our sites.*


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 2019 we disposed of 145,299 fewer tonnes of total waste than in 2008 – a 96% 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 2019, seven 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.

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.

We estimate that around 50% of our plastic packaging was reusable, recyclable or compostable in 2019.


Our perspective

To help deliver our four plastic packaging commitments we have developed an internal framework: Less plastic, Better plastic, No plastic.

The framework – which we implemented in 2017 – outlines our approach to how we will achieve our commitments and guides our innovation. ‘Less plastic' is about cutting down how much we use in the first place. 'Better plastic' is about making our products recyclable and eliminating problematic materials. Specifically, it’s about how we get recycled content into our packaging. And ‘no plastic' is about thinking differently – using alternative materials such as aluminium, glass, paper and board where possible and removing plastic where it is not necessary.

We have been developing a robust metric to measure, and report progress against, our commitment to make 100% of our plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. In 2019, we estimate that more than 50% of our plastic packaging was reusable, recyclable or compostable. We’ve taken a strict view on the of our plastic packaging was reusable, recyclable or compostable. We’ve taken a strict view on the definition of ‘reusable and recyclable’. For instance, materials like coloured polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are not defined as recyclable in our metric because globally there are not established, proven examples of it being commercially viable for plastic re-processors to recycle the material.

We recognise the importance of recycling but we know it’s not the only solution. We are determined to reduce our use of single-use plastics by investing in alternative models of consumption such as refilleries, which we trialled in Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Chile, Vietnam, France and the US (amongst other countries) in 2019. We are also exploring alternative packaging solutions that use no plastic at all, such as our naked Solero ice creams, which we piloted in 2019.

Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a 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 20% in 2019 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. 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 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.

Around 9% increase in recycling and recovery rates in 2019, 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.

We estimate around 5% (35,000 tonnes) of post-consumer recycled materials was incorporated into our rigid plastic packaging in 2019.


Our perspective

Recycling and recovery is a challenging target because we are reliant on public policy, infrastructure and consumer engagement. The volume of materials recycled or recovered increased by around 9% in 2019 compared to our 2010 baseline. We are now off track in terms of our performance because there has been a slowdown in global recycling rates. But through our commitment to help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell, we aim to kickstart more recycling of the materials that are important to us.

We took some big steps forward in 2019, introducing post-consumer recycled waste materials into more of our products. For example, our Dirt is Good laundry brand launched our first 100% PCR – and fully recyclable – bottle in Colombia. This is also one of the first high-density polyethylene (HDPE) 100% PCR bottles for our Dirt is Good brand globally. Our Cif dishwash brand has been working to incorporate more PCR polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into its Cif Active Gel bottles since 2014 and reached 100% of its the packaging across the entire range in Argentina.

Also in 2019, Bango, our soy sauce brand in Indonesia, switched to 100% recycled PET (rPET) bottles. And, our new US hair care brand, ‘The good stuff’ – which launched in 2019 – uses only 100% rPET in its bottles.

We want to use far more 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 includes setting up long-term offtake agreements to build the business confidence needed to increase technological investment. In turn, 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.

We expect our use of PCR materials to accelerate rapidly over the next few years as the design processes begin to deliver at scale. This will help us achieve our global commitment to include at least 25% recycled content in our plastic packaging by 2025.

Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a 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 nine years, we have co-developed a new technology using a chemical process called CreaSolv® Recycling technology. 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 trials that CreaSolv® Recycling technology is a technically viable solution to recycling sachets.

Our pilot plant in Indonesia, opened in 2018, is the only facility in the world where this technology is being used to recycle sachets. We’re continuing to test the technical and commercial viability of this technology.

We are also working with municipal governments on developing the infrastructure for collecting and processing sachets.

Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a 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.

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 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.


Going beyond zero waste to landfill
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