Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a circular economy
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.
The plastic system needs a fundamental rethink
Plastic is a valuable material that has a vital place in the economy and in our business. It is crucial for the safe and efficient distribution of our products – and it has a lower carbon footprint than many alternative materials. But it has no place in our oceans, rivers, streets and countryside.
Each minute the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic leaks into streams and rivers, ultimately ending up in oceans. An estimated 100 million marine animals die each year due to discarded plastic. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report on the New Plastics Economy (PDF | 1.32 MB) estimates that by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.
We have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make sure that we keep plastic within a circular economy and out of the environment.
That means taking fast and radical action at every point in the plastic cycle. We want to lead the way in our approach to our products and packaging, and to the business models and systems in which plastics play a part.
Moving towards a circular economy
At the heart of the plastic waste problem is the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model of consumption, which means products get manufactured, bought, used briefly, and then thrown away.
As a consumer goods company, we’re acutely aware of the causes and consequences of this linear model. It is unsustainable in a world in which, just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, and only 9% is actually recycled – while a third is left in fragile ecosystems, and 40% ends up in landfill.1 And discarding plastic makes no sense economically, either. According to the World Economic Forum, plastic packaging waste represents an $80–$120 billion loss to the global economy every year.
Moving towards a circular economy – where we not only use less packaging but design the packaging we use so it can be reused, recycled or composted – will mean less plastic in our shared environment. It will also contribute towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG 12), specifically target 12.5 on substantially reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. It also contributes to achieving SDG 14, Life on Water, through target 14.1 on preventing and reducing marine pollution of all kinds.
What is a circular economy?
A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. This means that materials constantly flow around a ‘closed-loop’ system, rather than being used once and then discarded. As a result, the value of materials, including plastics, is not lost by being thrown away.
We cannot achieve a circular plastics economy alone. Our vision is a world in which everyone works together to ensure that plastic stays in the economy and out of the environment.
As a consumer goods company, we have a clear responsibility to play our part. And the benefits of the circular economy for business are clear. More effective use of materials means lower costs and less waste. It means new sources of value for customers and citizens, better risk management of raw materials and improved approaches to the supply chain.
Radical action to fix the plastic system
We're driving our approach through four ambitious commitments that will radically reshape our plastic use.
By 2025, we will:
- Halve the amount of virgin plastic we use in our packaging and 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 material in our packaging to at least 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.
Our plastic is our responsibility, so we are committed to collecting back more than we sell, as part of our drive towards a circular economy. This is a daunting but exciting task which will help drive global demand for recycled plastic.Alan Jope, CEO
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.
The biggest challenge to increasing the amount of post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials in our packaging is the limited availability of high-quality recycled waste materials (owing to a high demand on the market), particularly in developing and emerging markets. So, we are working with others to develop the recycling industry. This includes tackling wider infrastructural issues, building the technical and commercial viability of reprocessing materials at scale, and setting up long-term offtake agreements to build the business confidence needed to increase technological investment to help ensure better quality recycled materials come into the marketplace.
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. This includes targets to reduce the weight of our packaging by one-third by the end of 2020 and halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products by the end of 2020. Since 2010, our waste impact per consumer use has reduced by 32%.
Our four plastics commitments are recognition that we have to move faster and act holistically because the need for radical action is urgent. Our four commitments demand a fundamental rethink in our approach to our packaging and products. It requires us to introduce new and innovative packaging materials and scale up new business models, like reuse and refill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity.
How our plastic commitments are driving change – an overview
1. Reduce our virgin plastic packaging by 50% by 2025, with one-third coming from an absolute plastic reduction
For example, our Seventh Generation brand is eliminating virgin petroleum (new plastic made from oil) and virgin fibre (virgin wood pulp) from its packs by using 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials. Hellmann’s has switched to 100% PCR plastic bottles and jars in the US and Canada, cutting our virgin plastic use each year by 13,000 tonnes and 1,000 tonnes respectively. And our Dove brand launched several long-term initiatives in 2019, which will cut more than 20,500 tonnes of virgin plastic from its portfolio each year.
2. Help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell by 2025
We'll help collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of material annually by 2025. We're making direct investments and partnerships in waste collection and processing, building capacity by buying recycled plastics, and through participating in extended producer responsibility schemes in which we directly pay for the collection of our packaging. For example, our Unilever Indonesia Foundation has already helped communities in 18 cities to develop systems where they can collect and sell inorganic waste. Since 2012, the waste banks have collected a total of 17,893 tonnes of packaging waste, worth 23.44 billion IDR.
3. Ensure that 100% of our plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable
This is a key part of embedding circular thinking – and we're making progress. In Chile, for example, we have moved from using a non-recyclable folding carton across three detergent brands – Omo, Drive and Rinso – to a 100% polyethylene (HDPE) bag which is recyclable, saving 1,634 tonnes a year. And in South Africa, all bottles of our Sunlight dishwashing liquid are recyclable, but in 2019 the 750 ml and 400 ml packs became the first to be made using 100% recycled plastic.
4. Increase the use of post-consumer recycled plastic content in our packaging to at least 25%
In 2019, we estimate that we used around 35,000 tonnes of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic in our packaging, such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in our plastic bottles. We expect our use of PCR materials to accelerate rapidly over the next few years as the design processes begin to deliver at scale.
We've taken some big steps forward. For example, in 2019, Dove switched to new 100% recycled plastic bottles – where technically feasible – in North America and Europe. Our Bango sweet soy sauce brand in Indonesia began to switch to 100% recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. This builds on our work in 2018, when we launched our REN Clean Skincare packaging with 100% recycled PET (rPET) bottles, working with TerraCycle, a US recycling company, to create the bottles from 80% recycled plastic bottles and 20% reclaimed ocean plastic.
Less plastic. Better plastic. No plastic.
We are transforming our approach to plastic packing through our ‘Less plastic. Better plastic. No plastic.’ internal framework.
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.
Less plastic: rethinking how we design our packaging
Sometimes a new design or a whole new way of packaging products is the best way to reduce our impact. Our first step towards halving our use of virgin plastic in our packaging is eliminating over 100,000 tonnes of plastic from our packaging. We focus our packaging design efforts in three areas: reducing our use of materials, using more recycled content and ensuring our packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable.
As part of our commitment to halve our use of virgin plastic, we aim to avoid unintended consequences when introducing alternative materials. This is fundamental to limiting our environmental impact, including GHG emissions. So we apply a lifecycle assessment approach to inform decisions when shifting to alternative materials when we develop reusable packaging.
Reduction by redesign: using less packaging
While we look for ways to develop completely new packaging solutions, we're also focusing on using lighter, stronger and better materials which have a lower environmental impact.
We aim to optimise materials each time we redesign our packaging or develop concentrated or compressed versions of our products. It can take significant investment and ingenuity to reduce the amount of material in a pack, even by just one gram. However, the return on investment is worth it when our innovations successfully reduce the packaging and waste impact in our value chain, result in material cost savings and are more attractive to our consumers.
We’re collaborating with suppliers, academics, start-ups and other organisations to develop new technologies. This ensures a constant flow of innovative solutions to help us achieve our targets. Recent innovations to optimise our packaging include:
- In 2019 we launched Cif ecorefill – a ten times concentrated refill that allows shoppers to buy one spray bottle, which they can then 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.
- During 2018 we launched a three-litre bottle for our Omo laundry detergent brand in Brazil, with a formula at six times the concentration of the original, so it can be diluted in people’s homes. This has reduced the volume of plastic used by 75%.
- Innovations such as the foamed plastic layer in the middle of plastic bottle walls using MuCell™ technology – which we developed in collaboration with MuCell and Alpla in 2014 – reduced plastic use by up to 15% per bottle.
- In China, as in most countries, the majority of ice cream cartons are laminated to survive freezer temperatures. This means that the cartons have a low recycling rate. So, we worked with an ink supplier and carton converter to develop a matt UV varnish to replace the film. This could cut packaging waste in China by around 300 tonnes per year.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Better plastic: recycled and recyclable packaging
The ‘better plastic’ aspect of our framework focuses on making our products recyclable and eliminating problematic materials. Our use of recycled plastic has increased significantly in the last year. We have stepped up our purchasing of recycled plastic – and we expect this to keep increasing.
Stepping up to better plastic
We estimate that around 50% of our plastic packaging was reusable, recyclable or compostable in 2019. Our brands are increasing their use of recycled plastic. This includes:
- In early 2020, our oral care brand Signal launched the Signal Ecolo Clean toothbrush, which is made from 100% food-grade post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic. Its design features a hollow handle made from 40% less plastic than an ordinary toothbrush – this will save 10 tonnes of plastic in its first year. The toothbrush is 100% recyclable, thanks to our consumer-return partnership with global recycling company TerraCycle. Launched in France, it will be available soon in other countries.
- Dove has opted for long-term initiatives for a greater and sustained impact. In 2019, Dove announced a range of long-term initiatives that will reduce more than 20,500 tonnes of virgin plastic from its portfolio each year. From 2020, single packs of Dove’s iconic beauty bar will be plastic-free globally.2 Dove is working on ways to replace the plastic outer-wrap of beauty bar multipacks with a zero-plastic material. Dove is switching to new 100% recycled plastic bottles where it’s technically feasible.3
- In 2019, our Dirt is Good (DiG) 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. We are changing all packaging for our FAB laundry brand’s liquid detergent portfolio to 100% PCR plastic. By doing so, we’ll use around 6.5 tonnes of recycled plastic per month, which equates to a reduction of more than 78 tonnes of virgin plastic per year.
- Our Cif dishwash brand has been working to incorporate more PCR polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into its Cif Active Gel bottles since 2014. It reached 50% in 2017 and in 2019 reached 100% of its packaging across the entire range in Argentina. Using 100% PCR in our Cif Active Gel bottles means we avoid the need for over 3,000 barrels of oil – that’s what it would take if we made them from virgin resin. It also prevents 800 tonnes of plastic going to landfill. While Cif Active Gel is the first brand in Argentina to use 100% PCR, all our concentrated dishwash liquid portfolio packaging in the country will be moving to 100% recycled PET (rPET) bottles.
- In 2019, Bango, our soy sauce brand in Indonesia, switched to 100% rPET bottles, which are also halal.
- Our new US hair care brand, ‘the good stuff’ – launched in 2019 – uses only 100% rPET in its bottles.
- Our Love Beauty and Planet hair and skin care brand uses 100% rPET in all bottles across its ranges, and is working to incorporate rPET into its bottle caps and pumps.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Driving demand for post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials
We want to use far more PCR plastic in the future, not least as a way of recapturing our own packaging. Closing the loop on plastic packaging, so that used packaging is viewed as a valuable resource rather than thrown away, is a major opportunity. But it also presents challenges: low crude oil prices, limited availability of high-quality recycled waste materials, and rules on food packaging can all make progress more difficult in some markets.
We need to be both innovative and collaborative if we're to meet our ambitions. That means using recyclable materials at the outset and making them recyclable after use. But it also means tackling wider infrastructural issues, such as local collection and sorting facilities, and building the technical and commercial viability of collecting and reprocessing of materials.
For example, in Brazil we realised that the local supply of PCR did not meet the quantity – and quality – we needed. So, in 2016, we helped increase the supply, working with Wise, a specialist supplier of recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the most common plastic used in our Home Care and Beauty & Personal Care bottles. And in 2018 we joined Plastic Network – managed by ABIPLAST, the plastic industry association – which is focused on increasing recycling rates. This includes resin manufacturers, converters, recyclers, consumer goods companies and co-operatives of waste pickers.
In Argentina, we are working in collaboration with ALPLA, a world leader in the development and production of plastic packaging solutions, and Ecopek, a specialist PET recycling plant, to increase the amount of PCR resin available that we can use.
Cracking the tricky problem of recycling black plastic bottles
Until now, black plastic bottles have been impossible to mechanically detect and sort for recycling. But we’ve developed a way of doing it. And we’re making the technology and approach available to everybody.
We are working with masterbatch (a system to add colours and additives to polymers) suppliers in Europe so that the black plastic used by our brands can be recycled. Black plastic is generally not recycled because imperfections are not detectable in recycling facilities. We have pioneered the development of a new detectable black pigment for our high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles – which we use for our TRESemmé and Lynx (Axe) brands – so they can now be ‘seen’ by recycling plant scanners and sorted for recycling.
These automatic optical sorting machines are unable to distinguish black plastic because they use near infra-red light which is absorbed by the ‘carbon black’ pigment traditionally used to colour the bottles. This effectively makes them invisible to the sorter and leads to them being rejected and sent for waste. The new technology means that an additional 2,500 tonnes of plastic bottles could now potentially be sorted and sent for recycling each year in the UK alone. That’s equivalent to the weight of over 1,200 family-sized cars or 200 London buses.
In 2019, we began using the new detectable bottles for our TRESemmé and Lynx (Axe) brands in the UK. Both brands also began using a minimum of 30% recycled plastic in their bottles.
We have carried out extensive trials – in collaboration with RECOUP (a leading authority in plastic recycling) and waste management partners Veolia, Viridor, Suez and TOMRA – which have proved that this new pigment can be technically detected within their material recycling facilities in the UK. The knowledge and expertise from developing this solution will be made accessible to others in the industry, as well as to other markets globally. We’re pleased to share our work and the insights generated with other manufacturers so that this technology and approach can be widely used.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Transforming the plastic economy through innovation
Sanjeev Das, Global Refreshment Packaging Director
“Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is everywhere in the modern world. At Unilever, we use it in bottles for dressings, beverages, and in home and personal care products. Elsewhere, it can be found in anything from food packaging trays to textiles and insulation padding in clothing.
But only 14% gets to recycling plants. The rest is either incinerated, disposed of in landfills, or is leaking into nature.
And we want to change that.
Start-up technology tackling the challenges
The main reason PET isn't recycled is because of the lack of infrastructure to collect and sort through discarded plastic. There are also technical issues – recycling coloured or contaminated plastic has proved extremely challenging. Until now, that is.
We’ve been working with Ioniqa, a start-up company in the Netherlands. They've developed a technology that uses a patented magnetic catalyst to break PET down to its building blocks at a molecular level. That means we can take any type of PET waste, then break it down to remove colour and impurities. We can then turn it back into pure, clean, transparent PET plastic that’s food-grade ready. And the beauty of it is that this can be repeated over and over again.
Making plastic waste valuable
It’s a real circular economy approach. The process brings value to PET waste, returning it to the economy as a valuable resource. That in turn incentivises plastic collection.
We believe this technology has the potential to revolutionise plastic recycling. So we want to share what we’re doing with other companies who, like us, are keen to see an end to plastic waste."
Working with consumers to promote recycling
Collecting and sorting recyclable materials plays an important part in ensuring they can be reused – which means consumers have a vital role in the circular economy. Our aim is to promote recycling among consumers, raise awareness at government and NGO level, and help workers economically. We have a number of projects which encourage people to recycle more, and help to make recycling a lifelong habit.
In Brazil, for example, we work with Consumer Goods Forum companies and NGO CEMPRE to increase the types of materials recycled, drop-off points for used packaging, and co-operatives to sort materials. Our partner, Brazilian retailer Pão de Açúcar, has drop-off points in their stores where consumers can bring used packaging, and our brands engage with consumers to encourage recycling. This initiative has collected over 117,000 tonnes of material since the programme began 18 years ago.
Incentivising behaviour change is a big part of building lifelong recycling habits. That’s why, in Argentina, we’re working in partnership with the Buenos Aires City Government and retailers in the area to increase the volume of recycled material available to packaging producers. Consumers are offered discount benefits to encourage them to bring their waste packaging to government recycling points.
The power of packaging waste in Kenya
Waste is a huge problem in Africa – but it can also be an opportunity. Kenya is awash with plastic litter. Rivers are being clogged and even the roads are becoming impassable. Nairobi produces around 2,400 tonnes a day, of which roughly 60% is collected and only around 10% recycled. The rest is dumped illegally or burned.
To help tackle this, we're working with a group who are embracing the issue in ways that benefit society and the livelihoods of some of Kenya's poorest people: Mr Green Africa. The organisation represents 'pickers', often marginalised people who collect waste and sell it on – people who aren't employed by anyone and who are often exploited by traders and middlemen.
By buying directly and bypassing the traders, Mr Green Africa can guarantee pickers a premium price, so they can make a higher, more stable income. This also creates a regular supply of recyclable plastic. Since we began our partnership in 2018, we have doubled the amount of plastic waste diverted from landfill.
Draganah Omwange, one of our employees, began a plastic recycling scheme called U-Turn – working in partnership with Mr Green Africa. After securing project funding of €234,000 from Unilever’s East Africa Brighter Future Fund, Draganah began working to change the perception of waste in Kenya. Around 180 primary schools were enlisted, some of which are based in Kibera, Kenya’s biggest slum. Students are taught that ‘plastic equals value’ and they collect discarded plastic containers, with the schools providing collection points. Mr Green Africa collects the plastic bottles from the schools and recycles them.
The partnership has created employment for over 2,700 pickers who help collect the waste. And a new recycling culture is gaining traction, shifting entrenched attitudes towards plastic littering and turning waste into value. Over 1 million people have already been reached by the campaign. The U-Turn project is being scaled up and extended to the cities of Kisumu and Mombasa.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Rethinking in partnerships to recycle flexible packaging
In 2016, we joined an initiative called CEFLEX, a consortium which now consists of over 150 companies, organisations and associations across the entire value chain of flexible packaging including: raw materials suppliers, packaging converters, brand owners and retailers, producer responsibility organisations, collectors, sorters and recyclers, as well as other technology suppliers and potential end users of the secondary raw materials. Through collaboration, CEFLEX aims to make flexible packaging in Europe circular across the whole value chain by 2025.
CEFLEX continues the work of the projects FIACE (EU) and REFLEX (UK) which both sought to quantify the added value of flexible packaging and identify opportunities to increase recycling. Its mission is to make flexible packaging more relevant to the circular economy by advancing better system design solutions.
Its ‘Designing for a Circular Economy Guidelines’ for both flexible packaging and the infrastructure to collect, sort and recycle will be published later in 2020. The guidelines will provide a clear roadmap for the infrastructure and capabilities required – as well as clarity to brand owners and others in the value chain on what structures should be innovated to support the drive to circularity.
A technological breakthrough and a multi-stakeholder effort to increase recycling is the kind of combined approach that will make the circular economy a reality. And we're putting it into practice in Indonesia to tackle one of the most urgent waste issues – multi-layer sachets.
Since 2011, we've been working with the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV on CreaSolv® Recycling technology, which allows us to recycle multi-layered plastic sachets. CreaSolv® Sachet Recycling technology is a breakthrough process that produces safe, high-quality polymers for use again and again – including in our non-food packaging sachets. Our pilot plant in Indonesia 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.
Our Knorr soups are popular in Turkey, however until recently, the flexible packaging couldn’t be recycled. But one of our employees, Atahan Ozgunay, R&D Packaging Manager for Foods & Tea in Turkey, set up a network of stakeholders to tackle this, including sustainability NGO ÇEVKO, suppliers Jindal and Polinas, packaging manufacturer Mondi Kalenobel, recycling companies and consumers.
Developing a recyclable version was technically challenging because dry soups have a long shelf life of 18–24 months, so the pack had to be highly protective. And the production processes for making the recyclable packs also had to be within the capabilities of the factory. However, the team found a solution – flexible and recyclable packs for Knorr soups.
No plastic. New ways to package. New ways to consume.
Recycling is vitally important – but it isn't a complete solution to the challenge of plastic in our environment.
We'll make faster progress at fixing the plastic system if there is less plastic going into it in the first place. That's why ‘no plastic’ and 'less plastic' sit alongside 'better plastic' as the three pillars of our internal framework to achieve our four commitments.
Some of these plastic-reducing solutions will mean whole new business models for us, and new shopping experiences for our consumers. It is one of the most exciting parts of our strategy – and a key element of our commitment to halve our use of virgin plastic materials by 2025.
Refills. Reusable packaging. New formats. Brand new materials – and a return of familiar ones such as paper, glass or aluminium (provided we're satisfied they don't have a worse environmental footprint than the material they replace). There is huge scope for innovation – and our brands are already at work.
Exploring new business models for the refill-reuse revolution
How can you be sure your empty plastic bottle isn't leaking out of the circular economy when you've finished with it? One of the most obvious ways is to refill it – and this (sometimes deceptively) simple idea is at the heart of one area of innovation for us.
What we call 'refill/reuse' is an alternative way of consuming that offers many advantages. For shoppers, it means less waste – and the option to have higher-quality, even personalised packaging. For a business able to offer more convenient models and more attractive packaging, there's an opportunity to provide a better shopping experience. It can also help save costs, particularly in terms of transportation.
There are various ways in which refill-reuse models are either already working, or are being explored. People can fill their containers at home using refills bought at a shop or online. They could use an in-store dispensing machine at a large supermarket. 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.
This is a really exciting area and one where we’re aiming to take a leading role. While we’ve been designing potential solutions and experimenting for some time, it’s a new and very different concept for consumers.Richard Slater, Chief R&D Officer
We’re trialling various approaches to tackle the issue as there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution. We’re determined to make a real difference on the plastics challenge, and so we’ll continue to experiment and to test, learn and refine.
Shifting from disposable to durable: reuse-refills & ‘no plastic’ solutions
We’re determined to further reduce our reliance on single-use plastics. One of the ways we can do this is through investing in new business models around refills and reusable packaging. Our commitments require us to fundamentally rethink our approach to our packaging and products. It requires us to introduce new and innovative packaging materials and scale up new business models, like reuse and refill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity.
We’re working on ways that shoppers can buy one container and refill it over and over again, and are in a period of test, learn and refine. Widening consumer choice and consumer behaviour have a significant role in the impact of reuse and refills. Refilleries are not only a chance to try to change consumer habits in how they buy goods; if done well, they can also cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and packaging production.
Reuse & refillery station pilots
Some of our recent developments include:
- We’re working with Indonesia’s Saruga packaging-free store in Bintaro on their biggest 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. The products on offer at this pilot refill station include Home Care brands Rinso, Molto, Sunlight and Super Pell; Beauty & Personal Care brands Lifebuoy, Clear, Dove, Sunsilk, TRESemmé and Love Beauty and Planet; and Indonesia’s home-grown sweet soy sauce, Bango.
- At the end of 2019, our hair care brand, Sedal launched our first Beauty & Personal Care reuse-refill trial in Mexico. We set up refill stations in ten Walmart stores, allowing people to fill up reusable aluminium bottles with Sedal shampoo rather than buying the product in the usual plastic bottles. In the first ten days, we sold two tonnes of Sedal shampoo in the new aluminium bottles, and that level of demand has remained pretty much constant ever since. We’re now planning to launch Sedal Refilleries across the country.
- In 2019, we trialled refill stations for shampoo and laundry detergent in shops, universities and mobile vending in South-East Asia. For example, a pilot from All Things Hair – our content platform for hair inspiration and advice – brought hair care refills to people in the Philippines. We’re also experimenting with a refill model that comes to the consumer, rather than people going to a store. And in Chile, we’re partnering with Algramo to pilot an app-powered, intelligent dispensing system that uses electric tricycles to deliver to people’s homes.
- Love Beauty and Planet was one of the first beauty brands to offer a refill station in Vietnam. This was piloted in three shopping malls in 2019 and will be available permanently in local refill stores.
- In 2019, our ice cream brand Solero trialled ‘naked’ or wrapper-less ice creams in a compartmentalised box, which resulted in 35% less plastic per box. While we currently have no plans to expand this trial, we’re looking a number of ways to reduce the plastic in our Solero multipacks.
- Since 2019, we have participated in Loop™ – an innovative waste-free shopping and delivery model for reusable packaging innovations and refillable product formats. Products are shipped directly to consumers and then returned and refilled. The model is the result of collective action from a coalition of manufacturers, retailers, couriers, resource management company SUEZ and TerraCycle, a leader in recycling. Available in the US, UK and France, our brands involved include: Dove through minim™ – its reusable, refillable, stainless steel deodorant sticks; AXE; Hellmann’s, Love Beauty and Planet; Love Home and Planet; REN Clean Skincare; Rexona; Seventh Generation; and Signal.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Breakthroughs with biodegradable tea bags and seaweed sachets
Through exploring ways to achieve our commitments and targets, we have found a way to use a plant-based material for tea bags from renewable sources such as corn starch, which can be industrially composted.
More than one-third of our teabags – 27 billion – are biodegradable and plant-based. For example, our Saga brand in Poland, Red Rose in Canada, and SariMelati and SariMurni teas in Indonesia have adapted their manufacturing process to use plant-based materials. And our Pukka brand makes tea bags using a stitch of organic cotton and a unique folding process, which means the teabags don't need to be held together with polypropylene. Pukka was the first company to use organic strings to hold teabags together without the need of a metal staple or polypropylene.
In 2019, Hellmann’s and UK food delivery service Just Eat teamed up to trial sustainable packaging start-up Notpla’s seaweed sauce sachets to tackle single-use plastic in the takeaway sector. The trial, supported by the Innovate UK fund, means that Just Eat customers can enjoy the Hellmann’s sauces with zero plastic waste. During the trial, 65 Just Eat restaurant partners have offered a range of Hellmann’s ketchup, BBQ, tartare and garlic sauces served in the seaweed sachets.
The Notpla sachets are made from a seaweed-based material and naturally biodegrade in approximately six weeks. The sustainable sachets are opened just like normal sachets and can be thrown into the home compost or even a normal waste bin, to fully decompose. They are flavourless and colourless, which means the taste of the Hellmann’s sauce is exactly the same as you would find in a plastic sachet – but without the plastic waste.
Driving systemic change in circular thinking at an industry and global level
By committing to ambitious circular economy goals for plastic packaging, Unilever is contributing to tangible system change and sending a strong signal to the entire fast-moving consumer goods industry. Combining upstream measures on design and materials with post-use strategies demonstrates the system-wide approach that is required to turn the New Plastics Economy into reality.Dame Ellen MacArthur
The movement to a circular economy approach for plastics requires change across more than just our industry. Focusing on the three themes of recycling, reuse and recyclability, the New Plastics Economy represents systems-level change, and working with others in the plastic packaging sector is critical to its success.
Eradicating plastic waste & pollution at source: the Global Commitment
Nearly two years after we launched two of our commitments in January 2017, we joined around 250 packaging producers, brands, retailers and recyclers, governments and NGOs in signing the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to eradicate plastic waste and pollution at the source when it was launched in October 2018.
While we have been working to catalyse market change, the Global Commitment has the critical mass that’s needed to create systemic change – and it’s growing; by 2020, it had over 450 signatories. This is important as it sets out clear commitments and a common vision for a circular economy system where no plastic ends up as waste.
The Global Commitment, which is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and in collaboration with UN Environment, commits all signatories to three actions:
- Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reuse packaging models
- Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025
- Circulate the plastic produced, by significantly increasing the amounts of plastic reused or recycled and made into new packaging or products.
The Global Commitment aims to create ‘a new normal’ for plastic packaging. More than 15 financial institutions, with in excess of $2.5 trillion in assets under management, have endorsed the Global Commitment.
Investment fund to combat ocean plastic
In October 2018 at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali, we announced our participation in The Ocean Fund. Managed by Circulate Capital, this cross-value chain investment fund is designed to accelerate the growth of waste collection and waste management in South and South-East Asia. The majority of ocean plastic originates in this part of the world where both infrastructure and investment are limited, so the fund will begin its investment in India and Indonesia.
Unilever, PepsiCo, Proctor & Gamble, Dow Chemical Company, Danone and Coca-Cola have joined forces to invest USD $100 million in the fund. The fund aims to remove access to capital as a barrier to waste management development, recycling infrastructure and to support innovative solutions to the problem of ocean plastic.
The fund is being formed as a social and environmental impact investment fund for the primary purpose of reducing pollution and ocean plastic, and combating environmental deterioration by providing risk-tolerant financing and related assistance to investments designed to: (i) improve waste management and collection; (ii) improve sorting, processing and end-markets for recycling; (iii) increase demand for products made from recycled material; (iv) grow existing markets and create new markets for recycled material; and (v) prevent plastic waste and advance the circular economy.
Working with governments
We cannot succeed alone. 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. To move to a more circular economy approach, we need to fundamentally rethink the way we design our products and packaging. This means carefully considering the systems in which our products flow – and working with national governments to develop waste infrastructure.
We’re doing just this to develop policies and frameworks that facilitate this fundamental shift, including the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.
For example, alongside other large companies – including Coca-Cola, Danone, Indofood, Nestlé and Tetra Pak – we co-founded PRAISE, an association that aims to support the development of sustainable and integrated packaging waste management solutions across Indonesia. Through PRAISE and our other independent advocacy work, we are actively collaborating with the Indonesian government on the plastic waste issue.
Bold action across the value chain
We want to be part of the circular economy revolution and are committed to pioneering breakthroughs and new ways of doing business. To help boost recycling rates and develop a functioning infrastructure at scale, we’re involved in a number of partnerships and programmes.
In October 2018, for example, we signed a collaboration agreement with global resource management business Veolia to work on emerging technologies that will help create a circular economy on plastics. Starting in India and Indonesia, the three-year agreement focuses on ways to develop and scale up collection and reprocessing infrastructure so that recycled content is channelled back into the value chain. Together, we will explore ways to build recycling capacity and develop new processes and business models.
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.
Looking to the future
New business models and innovations, using circular economy principles, are transforming traditional take-make-dispose thinking with incredible speed.
This chapter contains just some examples of the actions we’re taking, but many more innovations are needed if we are to move towards a more circular economy.
In summary, we are creating a circular economy for plastic packaging by concentrating on five broad, interdependent areas:
- Rethinking how we design our products, so we use less plastic, better plastic, or no plastic. Using our Design for Recyclability guidelines that we launched in 2014 and revised in 2017, we’re exploring areas such as modular packaging, design for disassembly and reassembly, wider use of refills, recycling and using post-consumer recycled materials in innovative ways.
- Driving systemic change in circular thinking at an industry level: such as through our work with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, including the New Plastics Economy.
- Working with governments to create an environment that enables the creation of a circular economy, including the necessary infrastructure to collect and recycle materials.
- Working with consumers in areas such as recycling – to ensure different disposal methods are clear (eg recycling labels in the US) – and collection facilities (eg Waste Bank in Indonesia).
- Exploring radical and innovative approaches to circular economy thinking through new business models.
1 Science Daily: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170719140939.htm
2 Production timing pending on development test results.
3 There are only a few exceptions within the whole portfolio that are not fully 100% recycled bottles but still present a very high percentage in certain specific markets, and the plan is to achieve 100% very soon. In the EU, Dove bottles with MuCell technology were at 97% recycled plastic content by the end of 2019. Liquid hand wash, also with MuCell technology, will be at 97% recycled plastic but we had to postpone the implementation to Q3 2020 as we couldn’t find enough recycled plastic.