Inside Unilever’s plastics packaging strategy

EXCLUSIVE: Unilever's chief R&D officer David Blanchard has outlined the company's three-pillar approach to improving the recyclability of its product packaging, focusing on "less", "better" and "no plastics" solutions.

In January 2017, corporate behemoth Unilever unveiled a new commitment to ensuring that all of its plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The commitment was built on a recognition that the global plastics market was broken; nine months later, Blue Planet 2 aired, alerting the public to the environmental hazards of plastics.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), just 14% of global plastic packaging ends up in recycling infrastructure, while 40% ends up in landfill and a third in ecosystems such as the oceans. By 2050, it is estimated there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the world’s oceans.

The Anglo-Dutch firm is a sustainability leader, appearing the vanguard of corporates committed to mitigating climate impacts, and alleviating key environmental pressures. But few sustainability issues have caught the attention of the public quite like the ongoing plastics scourge. Corporates are rushing to market with solutions, commitments, innovative trials and the best intentions, but none will be overly sure that today’s actions won’t generate problems in the future.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Unilever’s chief R&D officer David Blanchard outlined how the company is identifying solutions to the plastics problem, but in a way that won’t lead to “unintended consequences” further down the line.

“There’s a place for plastics in the economy, it’s very versatile and a useful packaging material,” Blanchard told edie. “It’s a flexible material that is a very cost-efficient and weight-efficient way to get our products into the hands of consumers. If we can make it recyclable it helps us.

“There’s obviously scope to reduce the amount of plastic we’re using. We’ve always had a very strong plastics agenda. We’ve been good at analysing our packaging based on ‘remove, reduce, recycle and recover’. We’ve always followed that and have been taking plastics out of our packaging. This makes good commercial sense because if you remove the weight of your packaging you get an economic benefit.”

Less Plastics

Blanchard noted that internally, the company has created a three-pillar approach to targeting solutions to plastics. The “Less Plastics” ambition of the company relies on packaging innovations that reduce the overall weight of the product and the amount of plastic that is used.

This ambition has been evident since the launch of the Sustainable Living Plan in 2010. A target was introduced to halve the waste associated with the disposal of Unilever products by 2020. To date, this level has been reduced by almost 29%.

Unilever has invested in stronger polymers and design processes in Home Care brands, including sachets and pouches, which reduced polymer use by 1,400 tonnes in 2017.

Other technological advancements have seen laundry liquids moved from three-litre bottles to one-litres bottles, while providing the same number of washes – a move Blanchard claimed reduced the packaging weight by 40% and the amount of plastic by 70%.

An innovative MuCell technology – which injects gas bubbles into middle layers of plastic bottles – has helped reduce the weight and amount of plastics required for Dove Body Wash bottles by 15%.

With around 33 million Dove Body Wash bottles sold across Europe annually at the time, Unilever predicted that the technology could save around 304 tonnes of plastic. A full rollout across all products could save up to 27,000 tonnes of plastic.

Better Plastics

But with Unilever’s admission that plastics have a role to play in future economies, full-scale rollouts have instead been re-examined under the firm’s “Better plastics” approach.

The approach is largely centred on a closed-loop model that embeds the circular economy into Unilever’s supply chain. Better, in this case, means that the plastics can be recycled or reused.

“We’ve always had a strong focus on less plastics,” Blanchard said. “Where we’ve really stepped up the agenda is the language we’re using for better plastics, which is making all our packing recyclable and increasing the recycled content of our packs.

“We think we’re getting towards the closed-loop system of ensuring all our packaging is recyclable and getting recycled content into it.  Better plastics is where we’re putting significantly more of our effort into.”

Unilever first began using recycled materials in its plastic bottles back in 2013 and has committed to increasing the recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25% by 2025. As of 2017, more than 4,800 tonnes of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic has been used in Unilever’s plastic bottles – largely in the form of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Already, the company has introduced individual product lines which use recycled content exceeding the 25% collective target. Bottles of Knorr salad dressing in South Africa consist of 35% recycled PET, while Cif bottles in Argentina now contain 50% recycled PET.

Sachets are a prime example of the plastics conundrum. They are resource efficient and enable low-income consumers to purchase smaller amounts of a product they otherwise would be unable to afford. However, recycling infrastructure in developing countries – where a lot of these consumers are based – is often ill-equipped to collect and treat the packaging.

Unilever is, therefore, using pyrolysis to convert sachet waste into an industrial fuel. New CreaSolv technology can also recycle high-value polymers from used sachets, improving the closed-loop process for Unilever.

The company is also making big strides in the UK. In August 2018, Unilever launched its Love Beauty and Planet (LBP) line in fully recycled and 100% recyclable packaging. Earlier on in the year, Unilever announced a partnership with start-up Ioniqa and Indorama Ventures – the largest global producer of PET resin – to develop a closed-loop system that converts waste plastics back into food-grade packaging material.

Promoting the reuse and recyclability of plastics is essential in transitioning to a circular economy, as it alleviates resource consumption at the extraction phase and creates a new market for post-consumer material.

No Plastics

However, Unilever is aware that consumers are demanding that businesses move away from plastics and has therefore begun focusing on the third pillar of its strategy, “No plastics”.

A number of consumer-facing companies have pledged to eliminate the use of avoidable plastics, notably by switching to compostable or biodegradable alternatives. However, critics are concerned that these solutions are subject to “greenwash” with many variants only considered biodegradable or compostable if handled through industrial processes.

There are rightfully concerns that this phase-out could lead to unintended consequences further down the line, and Blanchard noted the importance of using lifecycle analysis to consider an array of options.

“We’ve just started on the whole area of ‘no plastics,’ as there are now people asking us to move away from plastics,” Blanchard said. “Things are in the exploratory phase. But, we’re using lifecycle analysis for some of the alternatives to plastics, to ensure we don’t then have these unintended consequences.

“If we [examine alternatives] through a lifecycle analysis to ensure that the alternative is better than where we’re moving from, I think that will ensure the sector is moving in the right direction.”

In February 2018, Unilever’s PG Tips brand announced it was moving to a fully biodegradable, plant-based material made from corn starch. While Unilever notes that these will take longer to breakdown in home composts compared to industrial facilities, Blanchard noted that Unilever’s Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre was well-placed to examine the environmental implications of products.

The move captures Unilever’s approach to plastic replacements. Oxy-degradable plastic packaging – believed to breakdown into potentially harmful residues – has been highlighted by Unilever and numerous other brands as a material that needs to be banned.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) – which Unilever is a member of – has called for a ban on the material. It is through these collaborative platforms that Blanchard believes lifecycle analysis can take centre stage in discussions.

“We’re part of EMF and we can have a dialogue with industry partners,” Blanchard added. “We can ensure that the discussions around the alternatives are seen to be responsible compared to where we’re moving from.

“It’s often a common discussion when we talk about polymers based on sugarcane, is that a more sustainable solution than using petro-chemical based feedstocks? These are the critical questions we’ll have with the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, where we’re members, and we would bring the analysis into that conversation.”

Blanchard noted that Unilever is continuously working on new innovations and that some will likely be ready to showcase over the next 12 months.

Matt Mace

Comments (1)

  1. Seb Beloe says:

    For a putative leader in corporate sustainability thinking and practice, Unilever has to do much better than just making its plastics recyclable. HDPE, PET and many other plastic type are eminently recyclable. The point is that they are not generally recycled. The focus should be on minimising the use of plastics and making sure that plastic that is used is made from recycled content or is biodegradeable.

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