As a partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Unilever – parent company of brands such as Dove, Sunsilk, Tresemme, Toni & Guy, Simple and St Ives – has led action on reducing plastic waste for a number of years. In 2010, the company set a goal to half the amount of waste associated with disposal of their products by 2020. As of 2018, they had reduced the waste by 31%.

In 2014, the company announced work to ensure their products are designed for recyclability, and in 2017, Unilever announced that, by 2025, all of their plastic packaging would be reusable, recyclable or compostable. Their latest commitment, announced earlier this month, is to also half the amount of virgin plastic used in packaging by 2025, and to help collect and process more plastic packaging than they sell (around 600,000 tonnes). The majority of Unilever’s virgin plastic use is in home and personal care products.

The actions taken to achieve these goals are diverse. While most are not new concepts to those already operating the sustainability space, many remain niche and are yet to be adopted by a major industry player. Those which are successful will undoubtedly be taken up as a new norm across the sector. Key actions that will be of interest for the broader industry include:

  • Reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging through light-weighting initiatives, removing plastic components and trialing cardboard alternatives
  • Developing a new pigment for black plastics, allowing them to be detected in recycling facilities and recycled
  • Investigating the potential of shampoo bars and super concentrated products (based on their experience with super concentrated home products, like laundry detergent)
  • Piloting refill stations for shampoo at shops, university and vending machines in South-East Asia, and
  • Partnering with Loop and trialing usable packaging made from stainless steel and glass, a refillable deodorant stick (minim) and toothpaste tabs.

The move reflects a growing awareness of the responsibility (moral and regulatory, both now and into the future) of manufacturers to reduce their reliance on single-use plastic. Demonstrating that the move is far from altruistic, Unilever states that more effective use of materials reduces input costs and ensures fewer materials are wasted, making good business sense. The commitment also introduces new sources of value for their customers, and being more involved in their packaging supply chain better positions the company to identify and manage associated business risks.

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