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Leon Kaye headshot

Unilever to Test New Plastic Sachet Recycling Technology

By Leon Kaye

Wander about any market in Africa, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent and you will see tiny sachets on sale everywhere. Filled with just about every product imaginable from shampoo to laundry detergent to condiments, they have helped many citizens who live at “the bottom of the pyramid” to enjoy the same consumer packaged goods (CPG) taken for granted in wealthier countries – only that they are more accessible and affordable as the purchase of a liter or so of product is no longer necessary.

These sachets have also boosted the fortune of CPG companies such as Unilever and Procter and Gamble by allowing them to enter new markets by doing little more than repackaging their products into tiny parcels. Some of them actually solve a problem, as in P&G’s water purification packets.

But these little sachets have together posed a huge problem – walk those same streets in Africa, India or Southeast Asia, and you will see them buried in mud or scattered on sidewalks. These sachets, while offering a lifestyle change for many citizens, also create environmental problems within their communities. Unilever, for example, has countered that in sheer volume of waste, the packaging is more efficient, as there is actually “less waste by weight per milliliter of product” compared to boxes or bottles. That may be true, but the sachets are still adding up -- creating both an aesthetic and environmental mess.

To that end, Unilever has announced that it will test a new technology in an attempt to recycle this waste and close this gaping loop.

The problem has long been that most sachets are manufactured out of a thin layer of plastic and aluminum. That combination allows these products to have a longer shelf life, while preventing leakage before use. But they are also nearly impossible to recycle. The challenge goes beyond finding a way to remove that plastic sheath from the aluminum or any other polymer. After all, towns and cities in emerging economies often lack any such waste diversion infrastructure in the first place.

To solve that problem, Unilever has partnered with Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV, an organization that has long been focused on making food products and packaging both safe and sustainable.

The outcome is what Fraunholfer calls the CreaSolv process, which has already been tested for recycling plastics, and separating flame retardants, from electronic waste. Plastic will be separated from those sachets, which in turn will be processed into new sachets for Unilever products – which the company says will nudge it towards a true circular economy.

The technology will be first tested later this year in a pilot project in Indonesia. The most populous country in Southeast Asia has had its own struggle with plastic waste, as Indonesians generate 64 million metric tons of trash annually – with 1.3 million metric tons of it ending up in waterways and oceans.

Unilever has launched pilot projects before in an effort to reduce the waste resulting from the hundreds of billions of sachets sold annually. In 2012, the company tested a technology that turned those waste sachets into fuel. While Unilever said this pyrolysis technology “proved” it could create a stream of fuel, there is no evidence that process ever scaled, and the company has not mentioned it in recent years.

And even if this technology scales, the cart that has to be placed before the horse is having a waste and recycling collection system set up in the first place. In an emailed statement to TriplePundit, the company said that it would look into creating “sustainable system change by setting up waste collection streams to channel the sachets being recycled.” To make this a reality, Unilever said it is working with local waste banks, retailers and government officials. One such outcome could be a more steady stream of income for waste pickers, who have benefited from some social enterprise projects in Indonesia but have long lived on the margins of society.

The numbers alone suggest the scope of the problem, and the opportunities that abound. Unilever has noted that what the CPG sector calls the “global consumer flexible packaging” market is a $229 billion business that will continue to grow. And it will continue to clog waterways and become a public health nuisance if the waste resulting from these products is not effectively tackled. This recycling project is a tiny baby step forward in stalling what has become a massive global environmental footprint.

Image credit: Unilever

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye