Something big happened in the consumer packed goods industry over the weekend, though few may have noticed: On Saturday, Unilever said it would make all of its plastic packaging completely recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. For a company that buys over 2 million tons of packaging a year, that is a big goal.
In an announcement that received little media coverage, the CPG giant specifically committed to several steps, including renewing its membership in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — known for its support of the circular economy — for another three years and endorsing and supporting its New Plastics Initiative.
As part of its pledge, Unilever plans to publish all of the plastic materials used in its packaging by 2020 to help create a plastics protocol for the industry. The company says it will also invest in a technical solution to recycle multi-layered plastic packaging, with the specific intention of sharing its findings with the CPG industry.
“Our plastic packaging plays a critical role in making our products appealing, safe and enjoyable for our consumers,” Unilever CEO Paul Polman said in a statement.
“Yet it is clear that if we want to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material, we need to do much more as an industry to help ensure it is managed responsibly and efficiently post consumer-use.”
Unilever is seriously committed to reducing waste
Unilever has already made hefty commitments toward waste reduction as part of its Sustainable Living Plan. That includes reducing packaging weight by a third in three years, and increasing the use of plastic content in packaging to at least 25 percent by 2025.
Reducing waste is part of Unilever’s goal to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of its products as its grows its business.
The company achieved its goal of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across its manufacturing operations in 2015. The waste associated with the disposal of Unilever products was by 29 percent since 2010, and the total waste sent for disposal was reduced by 97 percent per ton of production since 2008. Over 600 Unilever sites globally, including almost 400 non-manufacturing sites, have achieved zero non-hazardous waste to landfill.
No company can succeed alone
Nothing less than the involvement of the entire plastic packaging value chain is needed in order for recycling and reuse to become the norm.
“We cannot succeed alone,” Unilever declared it its Sustainable Living Plan, first launched in 2010.
In other words, even this CPG behemoth needs industry-wide action in order to meet its commitment. Many elements remain beyond the control of one company, such as a lack of waste-management infrastructure and limited investment in the waste industry.
Although it has been over 40 years since the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling around the world, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The lack of recycling is costly. An estimated $80 billion to $120 billion worth of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy every year, according to the Foundation.
And, of course, such staggering waste also costs the environment. The Foundation projects that, if we keep going as we are, the oceans may contain more plastics than fish by weight in less than 35 years.
One thing is for certain: Redesign and innovation are sorely needed in the CPG sector. Without it, a significant portion of plastic packaging will never be recycled or reused, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report. To be exact: About 30 percent of plastic packaging is destined for landfill, incineration or energy recovery by its very design, as these items are “often likely to leak into the environment after a short single use.”
This said, Unilever’s commitment to reduce its plastic packaging waste cannot be ignored by the big players in its industry. Organizations like Ellen MacArthur that are keen to promote the circular-economic solutions can only hope its commitment will spur industry-wide action.
Image credit: Flickr/Kevin Dooley