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Will leading producers do enough to cut virgin plastics?

Waste concerns and a call for more recycling are gradually inspiring big brands to reduce their plastics production while including more recycled content. Recently, Unilever has made a commitment to halve the use of virgin plastic in its products globally by 2025.

The multinational currently uses 700 000 tonnes of new plastic every year and says more than 100 000 tonnes cut from this total will come from reusable and refillable formats, ‘no plastic’ packaging solutions and a reduction in the amount of plastic in existing packs.

Unilever used nearly 5 000 tonnes of post-consumer recycled plastic in its packaging in 2018. Most of this was HDPE and PET. The company says it aims to include at least 25% recycled content in its packaging by 2025.

Alan Jope, Unilever ceo, has underlined the company’s intent to use more secondary plastics in its packaging. Even so, he has defended the use of plastic, arguing it is a ‘terrific material’.

‘This is part of responding to society but also remaining relevant for years to come in the market,’ he comments. ‘We profoundly believe that sustainability leads to a better financial top and bottom line.’

Improving design

Unilever says it is focusing on using lighter, stronger and better materials which have a lower environmental impact. ‘We aim to optimise materials each time we redesign our packaging or develop concentrated or compressed versions of our products,’ the company states.

Divers and beach waste collection crews working for Greenpeace conducted 239 clean-up missions in 42 countries last year. The result: Over 187 000 pieces of plastic trash were audited. Most plastic waste was generated by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Danone, followed by Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Perfetti van Melle, Mars Incorporated, and Colgate-Palmolive.

‘It can take significant investment and ingenuity to reduce the amount of material in a pack, even by just one gram,’ Jope says. ‘However, the return on investment is worth it when our innovations successfully reduce the packaging and waste impact in our value chain, result in material cost savings and are more attractive to our consumers.’

Recent innovations include:

  • A three-litre bottle for the Omo laundry detergent brand in Brazil with a formula six times the concentration of the original so it can be diluted in people’s homes. This reduced the volume of plastic used by 75%.
  • Lightweighting initiatives in skin care product packaging across the Vaseline, Dove, Pond’s, St. Ives and Simple brands reduced plastic content by around 1100 tonnes in 2018.
  • Laminated ice cream cartons survive freezer temperatures but have a low recycling rate. Unilever has worked with an ink supplier and carton converter in China to develop a matt UV varnish to replace the film, offering the potential to cut packaging waste in China by around 300 tonnes per year.

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