Unilever commits to ambitious plastics-reduction program

On Oct. 7, Unilever (London) announced ambitious new commitments to reduce its plastic waste and help create a circular economy for plastics. The company, which owns Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Lipton and many more brands, confirmed that by 2025 it will:

  • Halve its use of virgin plastics by reducing its absolute use of plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes (110,231 tons) and accelerating its use of recycled plastic. It will use no more than 350,000 tonnes (386,000 tons) of virgin resin by 2025, down from around 700,000 tonnes (772,000 tons) in 2018.
  • Help collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells.

circular economy conceptThis commitment makes Unilever the first major global consumer goods company to commit to an absolute plastics reduction across its portfolio, claims the company. Unilever is already on track to achieve its existing commitments to ensure all of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and to use at least 25% recycled plastic in its packaging, also by 2025.

Alan Jope, Unilever CEO, said, “Plastic has its place, but that place is not in the environment. We can only eliminate plastic waste by acting fast and taking radical action at all points in the plastic cycle. Our starting point has to be design, reducing the amount of plastic we use, and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources.”

Unilever’s commitment will require the business to help collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually in many of the countries in which Unilever operates, said the company’s announcement. Jope added: “Our vision is a world in which everyone works together to ensure that plastic stays in the economy and out of the environment. Our plastic is our responsibility and so we are committed to collecting back more than we sell, as part of our drive toward a circular economy. This is a daunting but exciting task that will help drive global demand for recycled plastic.”

While Unilever itself might be excited about this overarching new commitment, As You Sow, an anti-plastics advocacy group, doesn’t seem to have much confidence in the company’s ability to achieve the announced goals.

Conrad B. MacKerron, Senior Vice President of As You Sow, commented on Unilever’s announcement, “As You Sow salutes Unilever for committing to totally eliminate 100,000 tonnes of plastic packaging and increase the use of recycled plastic content by 2025. This commitment builds on a 2017 commitment made by the company, following engagement with As You Sow, to make all packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

“Subsequently, As You Sow asked the company to go further in dialogue with investor allies who comprise the Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance. We asked Unilever to set plastic use reduction goals. The company has clearly responded with an ambitious plan. We also asked it to develop alternatives to plastic packaging, which it appears to be doing by performing a ‘fundamental rethink’ in its approach to packaging, exploring reuse and refill delivery systems,” MacKerron continued.

“However, meeting these recycled content collection goals will require unprecedented collaboration among stakeholders including governments, consumers and other consumer goods businesses, and recyclers, and greatly increased funding. We look forward to receiving more details on how this will be implemented. We recently noted PepsiCo’s failure to increase U.S. bottle and can recycling rates after eight years of effort. We hope Unilever can learn from the previous failed efforts of others, and undertake unprecedented collaboration with stakeholders, including aggressive promotion of extended producer responsibility, or similar, legislation in the U.S., where we continue to suffer from embarrassingly low recycling rates,” he concluded.

Unilever’s announcement acknowledged that its commitment will require the business to help collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually by 2025. This is less than the company’s current 700,000 tonne plastic packaging footprint because it reflects the 100,000 tonnes absolute reduction Unilever has already committed to.

Unilever noted that it will deliver this commitment by:

  • Investment and partnerships in waste collection and processing;
  • purchasing and using recycled plastics in its packaging;
  • participating in extended producer responsibility schemes, where Unilever directly pays for the collection of its packaging.

The company said it will measure the total tonnes of plastic packaging it has helped collect and process in a year versus how much plastic packaging it has used. 

Over the last five years, Unilever has collaborated with many partners to collect plastic packaging, including the United Nations Development Programme to help segregate, collect and recycle packaging across India. In addition, it has helped to establish almost 3,000 waste banks in Indonesia, offering more than 400,000 people the opportunity to recycle their waste. In Brazil, Unilever has a long-running partnership with retailer Grupo Pao de Acucar to help collect waste through drop-off stations.

Image: iQconcept/Adobe Stock

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