Unilever joins new carbon capture consortium in bid to eliminate virgin fossil carbon from laundry and cleaning

Pictured: Carbon capture array at Jamshedpur steel plant in India. Image: Tata Steel/Carbon Clean

Called ‘Flue2Chem’, the initiative is spearheaded by the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) and brings together a total of 15 organisations working to develop and scale carbon capture technology suitable for foundation industries such as metals, glass, paper and chemicals manufacturing – and to use this captured carbon in their own processes and products.

The overarching aim is to displace some carbon derived from fossil fuels – often used to produce things like laundry products, cleaning products and electronics – with captured carbon. This could help reduce the net emissions from manufacturing industries in the UK, while also growing a new industry and decreasing the UK’s reliance on imported fossil-derived carbon.

In addition to the SCI and Unilever, consumer goods giants Reckitt and Proctor & Gamble (P&G) are participating in Flue2Chem. These businesses will be exploring how to incorporate captured carbon into their products as an alternative to virgin fossil-derived carbon, as they work towards their respective net-zero targets and strategies.

Unilever notably pledged in 2020 to replace all virgin fossil-derived carbon in its laundry and cleaning products with captured, natural and recycled alternatives within a decade. It has since launched laundry capsules incorporating mainly carbon derived from plant sources in Europe, and trialled its first laundry capsule incorporating captured carbon in Asia. Carbon to produce these capsules was captured at industrial plants in Asia, using technologies provided by LanzaTech.

Commenting on the Flue2Chem launch, Unilever’s Home Care science and technology research and development director Ian Howell said: “No single company can do this alone and so to have the power of 15 manufacturers and academics marks a significant step forward not only for the UK, but globally too.

“This is a game-changing opportunity to accelerate action and rewire the chemicals value chain to be less reliant on fossil fuels.  It’s a bold ambition and one that, at Unilever, we have been publicly calling for action over the last two years.”

The other Flue2Chem consortium partners are BASF, Tata Steel, UPM-Kymmene, Holmen, Croda, Johnson Matthey, The University of Sheffield, The University of Surrey, Carbon Clean, the Centre for Process Innovation and the Confederation of Paper Industries. The initiative is being partly funded through UK Research and Innovation’s Transforming Foundation Industries Challenge, with a £2.68m grant out of the total £66m budget for the Challenge. The Challenge is running from 2020 to 2024.

Flue2Chem’s total budget is £5.4m, with the remainder to be contributed by partner organisations.

Scaling new technologies

In addition to developing, trialling and scaling carbon capture and use technologies, the Flue2Chem members will research and present the economic incentives that will likely be required to commercialise the use of captured carbon in consumer goods made in the UK.

Captured carbon will need to be cost-competitive with fossil-derived carbon to make the model work. Yet man-made carbon capture, at a commercial scale, is in its relative infancy. Globally, the collective capacity of all operational CCS and CCU plants is estimated to be 38.5 million metric tonnes. These arrays are addressing less than one-thousandth of global emissions annually, which now exceed 50 billion tonnes.

Many corporates are betting on these technologies improving, scaling and reducing in cost in the coming decades. Shopify, Stripe, Alphabet, Meta and McKinsey & Company have collectively committed to purchasing $925m of carbon removals generated using man-made technologies this decade. Prices must be $100 per tonne or less.

Elsewhere, this week has seen Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP) confirming two additional partnerships with universities in Europe to research carbon capture technologies. It has a view to utilising them across the supply chain, capturing process emissions and turning them into things like plastics.

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