Unilever to slash new plastic use by nearly 400,000 tons per year

Darnell Taylor
October 8, 2019

The consumer products giant Unilever-which owns hundreds of brands from Dove and Seventh Generation to Hellman's and Breyers-uses 700,000 metric tons of plastic in its packaging every year.

Chief executive Alan Jope said: 'We are not against plastic.

Mr Jope said the way consumer firms use plastic demands a "fundamental rethink", adding that new and innovative packaging materials need to be utilised to drive the change.

The company will also be "making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources", he adds.

Critics say Unilever will increase the use of recycled plastic by up to 250,000 tons a year, which means a net reduction of only 100,000 tons.

It will be achieved by investment and partnerships aimed at improving waste management infrastructure in numerous countries in which Unilever operates.

"What we see as meaningful in the Unilever commitment is that it acknowledges the need for that total reduction of the amount of plastic that companies are producing and selling, and then that the way to get there is through new business models and innovating away from a throwaway culture that now defines the consumer goods sector", says Graham Forbes, global projects leader at Greenpeace USA.

The Anglo-Dutch firm now uses more than 700,000 tonnes of virgin plastic - created using raw materials instead of recycled materials - each year and expects to halve that usage by 2025. Unilever has been exploring new ways of packaging since 2017.

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To get there, Unilever will offer more reusable and refillable packaging, and sell more "naked", or unwrapped, products. Innovations via its "Through Less Plastic" scheme include the Lipton "festival bottle" which is made of 100% recycled plastic and is collected using a deposit scheme.

United States coffee giant Starbucks is meanwhile planning to ban plastic straws by 2020 while Walt Disney Co. said it would replace small plastic shampoo bottles at its resorts and many British supermarkets have drastically cut down plastic bag use.

The company has previously committed to incorporating at least 25 per cent recycled plastics in its packaging by 2025.

Unilever, which owns brands such as Dove, Ben & Jerry's and Litpon, is now on track to achieve existing plastics commitments to ensure all the plastic packaging it uses is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. It also means that Unilever will buy more recycled plastic itself, increasing demand for recycling.

Despite the company's efforts, Sian Sutherland, co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet, believes that Unilever should be doing more to reduce its environmental impact: "Unilever is one of the few who are showing real intent to turn off the plastic tap and we praise them for it". The company has also designed bamboo toothbrushes, cardboard deodorant sticks, and package-less shampoo bars.

"Our plastic is our responsibility, so we are committed to collecting back more than we sell, as part of our drive towards a circular economy". In addition, it has helped to establish nearly 3,000 waste banks in Indonesia, offering more than 400,000 people the opportunity to recycle their waste.

Addressing Unilever's plans, Jope said: "This is part of responding to society but also remaining relevant for years to come in the market".

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