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Leon Kaye headshot

Unilever’s Work on Recycling Plastic Shows CPG Companies Can Lead on Waste

By Leon Kaye

The world’s largest CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies, which often boast of histories dating back to the nineteenth century, have enjoyed remarkable growth during the twentieth and current centuries. Much of this success can be linked to the improvement in plastics, which allow both food and personal care products to be shipped long distances, gain a longer shelf life and be purchased easily, repeatedly and affordably.

It’s gotten to the point that many of us don’t have memories of our grandparents collecting tallow and turning it into soap - the price and convenience of just about everything from beauty bars to jars of mayonnaise means it has long made zero sense for consumers to tackle these as DIY projects (unless, of course, they want to show off on Instagram). Just about everyone is benefiting from the cheap and prolific selection of CPG products, whether it’s affluent Westerners buying retinol cream in the quest to look young, or consumers in poorer countries who are able to score products like laundry detergent in affordable sachets.

But the massive consumption of plastic worldwide also has resulted in more than its fair share of environmental and waste problems. For years, it worked just fine for CPG companies to make their products and then leave it up to municipalities to deal with the resulting waste. But over the past decade, governments have pushed back hard on this cycle, as landfill space becomes scarcer and more expensive to maintain.

Some leaders have suggested the solution is extended producer responsibility (EPR), which leaves it up to companies to deal with the waste ranging from juice boxes to disposable razors. But businesses have not been willing to swallow that pill, and governments are often loathe to prescribe such a medicine.

But what if businesses strive to be part of the solution when it comes to coping with plastic waste?

One company that says it is willing to move forward on solving this problem is Unilever.

The Dutch-Anglo CPG titan recently announced that it would join forces with Netherlands-based startup Ioniqa and Indorama Ventures, an $8 billion company often described as the world’s largest global manufacturer of PET resin. The venture seeks to develop a new technology that would convert food-grade PET waste into virgin plastic for repeated use in food packaging.

Such a commitment is important to Unilever, as last year the company pledged to have all of its plastic packaging become reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The announcement also further's Unilever's work to become a global business sustainability leader, one the company has worked on for several years. 

If this innovation can scale, Ioniqa’s process would be able to gather what is often non-recycled PET waste, such as those pretty colored bottles, and would also break down any used PET containers down to a base molecular level. Meanwhile, tinted plastics and similar particles that could otherwise have contaminated batches of recycled resin would be incorporated into this renewed material. The process would allow these plastic molecules to become converted back into PET yet again - which would allow Indorama’s facilities to create new PET containers that would have the same quality as any virgin-grade plastic.

Should this breakthrough succeeds, it would enhance Unilever’s reputation at many levels - as in leading when it comes to taking on responsibility for waste; showing that it is truly innovative and forward thinking; and proving that business thinking can solve business problems. And bottom line, this new recycling technology would allow Unilever to communicate that it really cares - a departure from what many companies are still doing: saying, not proving or demonstrating, that they care.

Image credit: Dave Goodman/Flickr

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