Rethinking plastic packaging – towards a circular economy

Plastic packaging: a growing problem
Reduce, re-use, recycle9%Of plastic packaging worldwide is currently recycled.Every minute the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic leaks into streams and rivers, ultimately ending up in the ocean. An estimated 100 million marine animals die each year due to discarded plastic. And the problem is set to get worse. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report on the New Plastics Economy estimates that by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

It is clear that urgent action is needed on multiple fronts. One area of direct concern for Unilever is the fact that just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, and only 9% is actually recycled.1 Meanwhile, a third is left in fragile ecosystems, and 40% ends up in landfill.

So, how did we end up here? Cheap, flexible and multipurpose plastic has become the ubiquitous material of today’s fast-moving economy. Modern society – and our business – relies on it.

But the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model of consumption means that products get manufactured, bought, used once or twice for the purpose they were made, and then thrown away. Most packaging rarely gets a second use. As a consumer goods company, we’re acutely aware of the causes and consequences of this linear model. And we want to change it.
Moving to a circular economy approach
Moving away from the ‘take-make-dispose’ model is key to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG 12), specifically target 12.5 on substantially reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. Moving to a circular economy also contributes to achieving SDG 14, Life on Water, through target 14.1 on preventing and reducing marine pollution of all kinds.

And from a purely economic perspective, discarding plastic makes zero sense. According to the World Economic Forum, plastic packaging waste represents an $80–120 billion loss to the global economy every year. A more circular approach is needed, where we not only use less packaging, but design the packaging we do use so it can be reused, recycled or composted.

What is a circular economy?
A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. This means that materials constantly flow around a ‘closed loop’ system, rather than being used once and then discarded. As a result, the value of materials, including plastics, is not lost by being thrown away.
We’re embedding circular thinking
We’re concentrating on five broad, interdependent areas to create a circular economy for plastic packaging:

Rethinking how we design our products, so we use less plastic, better plastic, or no plastic: using our Design for Recyclability guidelines that we launched in 2014 and revised in 2017, we’re exploring areas such as modular packaging, design for disassembly and reassembly, wider use of refills, recycling and using post-consumer recycled materials in innovative ways.
Driving systemic change in circular thinking at an industry level: such as through our work with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, including the New Plastics Economy.
Working with governments to create an environment that enables the creation of a circular economy, including the necessary infrastructure to collect and recycle materials.
Working with consumers in areas such as recycling – to ensure different disposal methods are clear (eg recycling labels in the US) – and collection facilities (eg Waste Bank in Indonesia).
Exploring radical and innovative approaches to circular economy thinking through new business models.

Exploring new business models
We are determined to reduce our use of single-use plastics by investing in alternative models of consumption which focus on refills and reusable packaging. Our internal framework recognises the importance of recycling but we know it’s not the only solution. In some cases, “no plastic” may be the best solution – and this is one of the most exciting parts of our strategy for plastic.

As a business we have already conducted a number of dispensing trials with our retail partners, however, we are still working to overcome some of the key barriers linked to consumer behaviour, commercial viability and scale. In France for example, we are piloting a laundry detergent dispensing machine in supermarkets for our Skip and Persil laundry brands to eliminate single-use plastic.

We’re exploring alternative materials such as aluminium, paper and glass. When we substitute one material for another, we want to minimise any unintended consequences, so we conduct lifecycle assessments to work out the environmental impact of our choices. We’re looking at new packaging formats and alternative models of consumption, such as introducing cardboard packaging for deodorant sticks.

Post time: Jul-27-2020