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Nithin Coca headshot

Unilever Crowdsourcing Alternatives to Plastic Packaging

By Nithin Coca

As the problem of plastic ending up in the world’s oceans intensifies, Unilever recently announced that it will invest €100,000 ($113,000) in order to crowdsource a new plastic-free, single-use laundry tablet. This development, one of ten solutions that emerged from a “Rethink Plastic” hackathon organized by Unilever, focuses on creating an alternative to single use laundry sachets. While relatively rare in most western markets, single-use sachets for a wide variety of products, including shampoo, conditioner, soap and other household products are commonly sold in developing countries. Currently these sachets aren’t recyclable and are rarely collected by waste management systems.

“This hackathon is part of our broader work with leading experts and innovators to redesign our packaging and work with the wider industry to accelerate the systemic change that is so urgently needed,” said Kees Kruythoff, President of Unilever Home Care, in an emailed statement to TriplePundit.

Ensuring that sachets are plastic-free would go a long way towards reducing plastic waste in many parts of the world. But it is just small piece of what is a much larger picture. Plastic pollution has, in the past few years, become a major global concern. The stakes are high, as a study released in 2016 by the non-profit Ocean Conservancy shows our stark future. If we don’t make drastic changes soon, by 2050 our oceans could have more plastic in them than fish.

“The scale of the plastic waste issue is getting worse, not better, with the production of plastics expected to double over the next decade,” said Kruythoff. “Addressing this issue is the shared responsibility of all stakeholders in the value chain.”

While the problem might seem massive, when you dive in a bit deeper, it looks more manageable. In fact, just a few countries account for the vast majority of the ocean plastic pollution problem: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. They are all densely populated, coastal nations with growing consumer demand for products produced by companies like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. There are real opportunities for companies like Unilever to make a dent in the problem through the use of emerging plastic-free technologies.

In fact, over the past few years, knowledge about the plastic crisis has become mainstream, and there is growing momentum as businesses, government, and nonprofits come together and find actionable solutions. For example, at the recent Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia, a yearly event focused on the goal of solving challenges related to ocean governance and sustainability, plastic was a leading topic of discussion.

The biggest announcement at the Our Oceans was the launch of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, a multi-sector, public-private partnership led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leader on research and collaboration towards a circular economy. The partnership includes Unilever and more than 250 other signatories that represent 20 percent of global plastic usage. The initiative's goal is eliminate all plastic pollution by 2025 by ensuring 100 percent reusability, recyclability or compostability.

“This global commitment draws a line in the sand, and establishes a new vision where plastics remain in the economy by design and never becomes waste in the ocean,” said Andrew Melet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, during a press event at Our Oceans.

Some critics, however, believe that this is too little, and far too late. They want companies like Unilever to take more responsibility for the impact these businesses are having on the world’s oceans. The Break Free from Plastic coalition, for example, calls for companies like Unilever to “disclose publicly the amount of plastic each of them is pushing into local markets and waste management systems across the world, and accept regulations instead of making weak, voluntary commitments.”

Moves like Unilever’s investment, along with the aforementioned Global Commitment, are welcome, but these actions are not enough. In fact, data related to plastic and the oceans is becoming more worrisome, and more and more marine life, even those found in the deepest depths of the world’s oceans, are increasingly found dead with plastic in their bellies. There are also growing concerns about how plastic increasingly ends up inside of our bodies - on that point, a recent story in HuffPost highlighted how little know about the impacts it could have for human health. It’s clear we need to do more, and we need more commitments akin to what Unilever has started. Companies need to be transparent about the their role in the plastic crisis, be willing to share data about the impact their plastics have on the global environment and be willing to invest more in potential solutions.

Image credit: Unilever/Instagram

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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