The plastic system needs a fundamental rethink

Plastic is a valuable material that has a vital place in the economy and in our business. It is crucial for the safe and efficient distribution of our products and it has a lower carbon footprint than many alternative materials. But it has no place in our oceans, rivers, streets and countryside.

Every minute, the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic leaks into streams and rivers, and ultimately, our oceans. An estimated 100 million marine animals die each year due to discarded plastic. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report on New Plastics Economy (PDF | 1.32 MB) estimates that by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

We have an opportunity and a responsibility to make sure that we keep plastic within a circular economy and out of the environment. That means taking fast and radical action at every point in the plastic cycle. We want to lead the way in our approach to our products and packaging, and to the business models and systems in which plastics play a part.

Moving towards a circular economy

At the heart of the plastic waste problem is the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model of consumption, which means products get manufactured, bought, used briefly, and then thrown away.

As a consumer goods company, we’re acutely aware of the causes and consequences of this linear model. That’s why we believe plastics must be kept inside the circular economy – where it is reused, recycled or composted. By keeping it in a loop, we stop it from ever finding its way into the environment.

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy is where materials 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.

Radical action to fix the plastic system

In Australia and New Zealand, 67% of our plastic packaging is recyclable - but there is still more to be done. Our starting point has to be with packaging design, reducing the amount of plastic we use, and then making sure that the plastics we do use come from recycled sources.

Last year, Unilever became the first major consumer goods company to commit to an absolute plastic reduction across its portfolio. By 2025, we will:

  • Halve the amount of virgin plastic we use in our packaging, resulting in an absolute reduction of more than 100,000 tonnes in plastic use
  • Help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell - this requires us to help collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually
  • Ensure that 100% of our plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • Increase the use of post-consumer recycled plastic material in our packaging to at least 25%

Unilever uses a framework - Less Plastic, Better Plastic, No Plastic - which shapes our thinking and future innovation:

  • ‘Less Plastic' is about cutting down how much we use in the first place
  • 'Better Plastic' is about making our products recyclable ensuring we’re using recycled content in our packaging
  • ‘No Plastic' is about thinking differently and removing plastic where it is not necessary by using alternative materials such as aluminium, glass, paper and cardboard where possible

Case Study

recycled products

Better plastic: Sourcing recycled plastic for our bottles

Virgin plastic is plastic that has been newly created without any recycled materials - and Unilever wants to reduce its use in our products. Our commitment to increase the recycled plastic content in our packaging by at least 25% has inspired us to rethink how we design our packaging, while also ensuring it serves its purpose for our consumers.

We were the first major consumer goods company in Australia and New Zealand to address one of the more challenging types of plastics – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene). HDPE is a more rigid type of plastic which is commonly used in home cleaning and personal care bottles. Previously, recycled HDPE plastic was challenging to source for home and personal care products due to economic and technical feasibility.

To address this, we partnered with our suppliers Visy & Pact to source Australian recycled HDPE plastic. Now, our Australian-made bottles - Dove, OMO, TRESemmé, Surf, and Toni & Guy – are made with 25%-70% recycled plastic.

By the end of 2020, Unilever Australia & New Zealand will use approximately 910 tonnes* of recycled plastic in its Australian-made bottles of Dove, OMO, TRESemmé, Surf, and Toni & Guy, as well as its imported bottles of Love, Beauty & Planet and Comfort. What does 910 tonnes look like? Imagine 200,000 yellow kerbside bins full to the brim with plastic bottles being reused**.

This is a 118% increase compared to the amount of recycled plastic Unilever Australia and New Zealand used in 2019. But when you look specifically at the bottles Unilever makes here in Australia - the progress is even more significant. In 2019, Unilever used 24 tonnes of recycled plastic in its Australian-made bottles. This year, it will use 466 tonnes - a 20x increase.

This all contributes to the bigger picture and globally, Unilever has stepped up its use of recycled plastic to around 75,000 tonnes, which is over 10% of Unilever’s plastic footprint. But it doesn’t end there - Unilever expects its use of recycled plastic to double in the next 12 months.

Our investment, innovation and willingness to move fast in this landmark move was a step forward in Australia’s ability to achieve a circular plastics economy.

* Combined total of PCR used in Unilever’s Australian-made bottles (460 tonnes) and imported bottles (450 tonnes)

*Based on an average sample of most frequently purchased Unilever bottles (variety of shapes and sizes) placed in an Australian municipal council kerbside yellow-lid bin.

Case Study

No Plastic: Experimenting with refill and reuse

Plastic-reducing solutions could mean we need to embrace new business models and shopping experiences for our consumers. It is one of the most exciting parts of our strategy – and a key element of our commitment to halve our use of virgin plastic materials by 2025. It will involve refills, reusable packaging, new formats, and new materials (provided we’re satisfied they don’t have a worse environmental footprint than the material they replace). There is huge scope for innovation – and our brands are already at work.

In January 2019, Unilever was proud to be a co-founding partner of the Loop Alliance.

Loop™ is an innovative new business model for premium durable packaging which is delivered directly to the consumer, returned and refilled. The platform also offers the opportunity to work with others at scale to test reuse models and shift consumer behaviour, which will help make circular packaging systems commercially viable.

Globally, Unilever is already trialling reusable packaging innovations across nine of its brands, including four new product formats. In Australia, Unilever will be participating in the launch of Loop™ Australia, with brands and formats to be announced ahead of its launch in 2021.

Innovation - Cracking the carbon black code

Traditionally, recycling scanners in Material Recovery Facilities (recycling facilities) use near infra-red light to sort materials. But when a bottle has been coloured ‘carbon black’ the infra-red is absorbed, making it difficult for the recycling scanner to “see” and sort the bottle.

To address this, in 2019 we pioneered the development of a new detectable black pigment which we use for our TRESemmé and Dove Men + Care brands – making it easier for recycling facilities to “see” and sort them for recyclable packaging.

In Australia and New Zealand, we are extending the use of our black pigment technology by allowing Material Recycling Facilities to use the technology for black bottles created by other brands. As a result, an additional 110 tonnes of plastic bottles will be sorted and sent for recycling each year in Australia and New Zealand.

Partnering for progress

No business can create a circular economy for plastic packaging in isolation. We can only do this by using the combined power of industry, policy, and the public to facilitate a complete transformation of how we think, use and dispose of plastic.
The business case is clear. Reducing waste creates efficiencies and lowers costs. Re-using materials extends their life, helping to use less of the earth’s precious resources. Recycling allows us to repurpose valuable materials that would otherwise have been wasted.

Nicky Sparshott, Unilever Australia and New Zealand CEO

Both globally and locally we understand the need to drive systemic change in circular thinking at an industry level. We do this by working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to ensure our packaging is compatible with existing and cost-effective recycling infrastructures.

In Australia, we work closely with the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) and other businesses to action Australia’s 2025 National Packaging Targets. Introduced in 2018, these targets build on commitments made by Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association to set a sustainable path for Australia’s recyclable waste.

As a result of our ongoing commitment to plastics, Unilever Australia was named one of the highest performing "Large Pharmacy & Personal Care" companies for three years running at APCO’s award ceremony.

In New Zealand, Unilever was a founding signatory of the New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration in 2018, acknowledging that no business can create a circular economy in isolation.

Making recycling easier for consumers

We know making our packaging recyclable is only part of our responsibility. Unilever also has a role to play in helping consumers know what is recyclable and how to recycle effectively. In 2018, we were a founding signatory of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation’s (APCO) Australasian Recycling Label (ARL).

The ARL provides consumers with the information to correctly dispose of their used packaging, through simple and effective graphics and instructions on the product label. The ARL aims to create greater transparency, drive a more sustainable supply chain models and outline what product packaging is made from so that Australians can correctly recycle it after use.

The Australasian Recycling Label has been the result of close collaboration and partnership. We’re incredibly proud of this initiative and of our members who have already pledged their commitment. The broad representation across industries demonstrates the growing sense of sustainability awareness and commitment in the Australia business community.

Brooke Donnelly, CEO of APCO

Since the launch of the ARL, Unilever has continued to work closely with APCO, and the ARL’s marketing partner Planet Ark to provide technical and marketing support for driving widespread awareness of the ARL. In 2018,2019, and 2020 Unilever Australia partnered with Planet Ark to support National Recycling Week, to raise awareness of the ARL and increase recycling rates.

Case Study

clean up drawing

Encouraging Aussies to Step Up to recycling

To encourage Australians to step up to recycling and help close the loop by choosing recycled plastic, Unilever partnered with Coles and Clean Up Australia to launch a national campaign.

The campaign educated consumers about how purchasing recycled products means they are helping to support the circular economy of plastic, so it can be re-used and re-purposed.

We also donated 10c to Clean Up Australia for every bottle of our recycled range - Omo, Surf, Comfort, Dove & TRESemmé – which was purchased at Coles during May 2020. Overall, we donated $76,000 to Clean Up Australia.

Case Study

redcycle logo

Diverting soft plastic from landfill

Since 2015, we’ve partnered with The Red Group, an Australian closed loop recycling initiative for soft-plastics, to help improve packaging recycling rates. The REDcycle program enables consumers to recycle packaging such as Streets ice-cream wrappers and Continental packs which are then processed into new products such as outdoor furniture for schools and signage.

Collectively, the efforts of manufacturers, retailers and consumers have diverted over 380 million pieces of plastic from landfill since 2011. That's over 1580 tonnes of soft plastic that won’t end up in landfill, on our beaches or in our waterways – the equivalent to 395 elephants (weighing 4 tonnes each).

In New Zealand we also work with the Packaging Forum on their Love NZ Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme. In 2020, the NZ Soft Plastic Scheme turned 160 tonnes of soft plastic into fence posts, cable covers and other durable plastic products. That’s equivalent to around 27 million units of plastic packaging. This included approximately 104kgs of Unilever packaging which is equivalent to 3000+ wrappers.

Walking the talk in our offices and factories

Helping consumers recycle is one thing but we know we also have a responsibility to help our employees. In 2015, our Australian factories, offices and warehouses joined the list of 600 Unilever sites globally that are sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill. Through a combination of waste reduction and waste recycling initiatives, we have also reduced our total waste per tonne of production in Australia by 48% compared to 2008.

These achievements have been made possible by our dedicated and passionate people who continue to find innovative ways to reduce waste in our manufacturing operations. For example, our Minto factory established a dedicated team to identify issues, reposition waste bins on the production line and decontaminate ice cream waste. As a result, ice cream waste was able to be diverted to Earthpower and used to generate electricity or sent to local farmers to be used as stock-feed.

Upcycling is another solution that has enabled us to divert waste away from landfill at our Tatura factory. For example, old wooden crates and panels were turned into toys for charities and disadvantaged children by the Shepparton Men’s Shed.

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