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Unilever’s new sustainable packaging goals bad for PVC, challenge bioplastics

Unilever, one of the world's largest brand owners of FMCGs, plans to reduce its product packaging weight by a third in the next 10 years and do away with PVC as much as possible by 2012. Bioplastics are of interest but not yet truly viable nor particularly sustainable, it says.

The company announced its new goals as part of its new "Sustainable Living Plan." Unilever has annual sales of about €40 billion, and claims that "on any given day, two billion people use our products" - equivalent to about 30% of the global population.

Unilever currently uses around 2 million tons of packaging a year, it says. The Sustainable Living Plan is multi-faceted with separate goals for reducing water use, increasing its use of renewable resources, and also goals for reduced use of packaging and increased recycling of the packaging it does use.

The new plan is said to be part of a strategy to "decouple future growth from environmental impact." Its goals including cutting the environmental footprint of its products in half and sourcing 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably. Announcing the plan, Unilever CEO Paul Polman explained, "We have ambitious plans to grow the company. But growth at any price is not viable. We have to develop new ways of doing business which will ensure that our growth does not come at the expense of the world's diminishing natural resources."

Much like other, similar plans announced by major purchasers of packaging, most notably Walmart and also more recently from P&G, Unilever's plan will most definitely affect its supply base. The fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) supplier wants to halve the greenhouse gas emissions, water and waste used not just by the company in its direct operations, but also by its suppliers and consumers.

Parts of the plans certain into affect plastics processors include:

Greater use of refillable packaging. One example: refilling plastic bottles with product packed in pouches, which require less plastic. 

* More recycling of its packaging: Working in partnership with industry governments and NGOs, Unilever aims to increase recycling and recovery rates for its packaging on average by 5% by 2015, and by 15% by 2020 in its top 14 countries. "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," according to the company.

* More recyclate in its packaging: By 2020 the company intends to increase the recycled material content in its packaging "to maximum possible levels." These levels are not quantified in the plan made public.

* Eliminating PVC: Eliminate the material from all packaging so long as "alternate technical solutons exist." Two applications it identifies as still requiring PVC are in the seals of food product lids which prevent contamination, and in the linings of aerosols.

* More work needed before bioplastics are specified: Bio-plastics are derived from renewable resources, but this does not mean that they are sustainable when all the environmental impacts and issues around these resources' growth, production and subsequent disposal, are taken into consideration, notes Unilever. "As one of the largest purchasers of packaging materials, we are making our expectations clear to suppliers and working with industry groups on viable solutions," it added.

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