Tackling waste and packaging as an opportunity

As a consumer goods company, we are acutely aware of the consequences of a linear take-make-dispose model and we want to change it. Increasing resource scarcity means it is more urgent than ever to be efficient with packaging and find solutions to deal with ‘post-consumer’ waste.

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.

In 2010, we set ourselves an ambitious target to halve the waste associated with our products by 2020 and to reduce the weight of packaging that we use by one third, through light-weighting materials, optimising structural and material design, developing concentrated versions of our products and eliminating unnecessary packaging.

recycling in brazil

In 2017 we built on this, making an industry leading commitment to ensure that all our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, while increasing the recycled plastic content in our packaging to at least 25% by 2025. These targets are driving real change in our business – in particular, how we design our packaging for recyclability and reuse. 

We are among a growing number of brands, retailers and packaging companies to make plastic packaging commitments. But more needs to be done to make reusable, recyclable and compostable plastic normal. That begins by making it technically possible for all our plastic packaging to be reused or recycled – but it also means demonstrating that there are established, proven examples of it being commercially viable for plastics re-processors to recycle the material.

In Australia and New Zealand 83% of our total packaging is recyclable and we are building a roadmap to meet the 2025 target.

Less plastic, better plastic, no plastic

In the past year, in order to meet our commitments, we have adopted an internal framework which will shape our thinking and future innovation - Less Plastic, Better Plastic, No Plastic. Our strategy is helping us transition to a ‘New Plastics Economy’ and recognises the importance of recycling while acknowledging that it’s not the only solution.

Less plastic

This involves using lighter, stronger and better materials which have a lower environmental impact.

• The ‘light-weighting’ of our packaging has resulted in a 15% decrease in packaging weight globally since 2010. Additionally, our total waste footprint per consumer use has reduced by 29% since 2010. 

• Locally, our light-weight Lipton Ice Tea bottle necks and caps use approximately 20% less plastic, saving 93 tonnes of plastic each year, while removing foil wrapping and the paperboard trays from our Lipton Black Tea bags boxes resulted in a 32% primary packaging reduction for our 50 Tea Bag Packs and 35% for our 100 Tea Bag Packs. This means we use approximately 168 tonnes less of paperboard annually and have helped divert 41 tonnes of foil laminate packaging away from landfill.

• Our 200ml Sunsilk Shampoo and Conditioner bottles are now also made with 29% less plastic which means we use less raw materials, save energy and reduce transportation costs.

Better plastic

We are focused on eliminating problematic or unnecessary plastics, using recyclable materials and more recycled content in line with our 2025 commitments. This means developing or designing plastics which are recyclable and have a value or purpose. For example, extending shelf life of food or reducing emissions.

• Last year, we announced a landmark move to introduce Australian sourced post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic for bottles of Australian made and well-known home and personal care brands such as Persil, Dove, Surf, Sunsilk and TRESemmé. We will introduce at least 25% recycled plastic into bottles for key brands and go further wherever technically possible, creating an end market and new life for approximately 750 tonnes of recycled plastic per year.

• In 2018 we also launched Omo EcoActive and Persil EcoActive with 25% recycled Australian-sourced plastic packaging and a plant-based formula. 

• Two of our global hero brands, Seventh Generation and Love Beauty Planet, are packaged using 100% post-consumer recycled content and are now available for consumers in Australia and New Zealand.

• We have pioneered the development of a new detectable black pigment for our High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bottles – which we use for our TRESemmé and Lynx brands – so they can now be ‘seen’ by recycling plant scanners and sorted for recycling. These automatic optical sorting machines are unable to distinguish black plastic because they use near infra-red light which is absorbed by the ‘carbon black’ pigment traditionally used to colour the bottles.

This effectively makes them invisible to the sorter and leads to them being rejected and sent for waste. The new technology means that an additional 2,500 tonnes of plastic bottles could now potentially be sorted and sent for recycling each year in the UK alone. 

• Our partnership with start-up company Ioniqa and the largest global producer of PET resin, Indorama Ventures, seeks to pioneer a new technology which converts PET waste back into virgin grade material for use in food packaging.  This innovation is particularly exciting because it could unlock one of the major barriers today – making all forms of recycled PET suitable for food packaging 

• Single-use plastic sachets allow low-income consumers in developing countries to buy small amounts of quality products that would otherwise be unaffordable to them. We’ve been identifying a technical solution to recycling multi-layered sachets through our CreaSolv® technology with the intention to make this technology open source and helping to scale it with industry partners, so others – including our competitors – can use it. Last year our facility in Indonesia became fully operational and we are currently working to iron out any issues linked to technical and commercial viability. 

No plastic

Unilever will continue to look at alternative materials, new packaging formats and alternative models of consumption. 

• In January 2019, Unilever was proud to be a co-founding partner of the Loop Alliance. Loop is an innovative new delivery model for premium durable packaging which is shipped directly to the consumer, returned and refilled.

As an innovative new business model, Loop has the potential to change the way consumers shop and consume goods by addressing one of the major reasons for disposability: convenience. It eliminates the need for disposable packaging by making shopping, delivery and re-use convenient. The ambition for Loop’s partner brands – including Unilever brands - is for packaging to be reused 100 times before needing to be replaced.

• Last year our Ben and Jerry’s Scoop Stores in Australia and New Zealand phased out all plastic spoons and straws.

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. 

In late 2018, Unilever Australia partnered with Planet Ark to support National Recycling Week, an annual event led by Planet Ark and used as a catalyst for discussion about waste management across the Australian community. 

Unilever New Zealand was proud to be a founding signatory of the New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration last year, acknowledging that no business can create a circular economy in isolation. We are also members of the Sustainable Business Council in New Zealand; a member forum which allows us to share learnings and best practice with other cross-sector leaders.

Both globally and locally we understand the need to drive systematic change in circular thinking at an industry level. We do this by working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and on other projects such as the Global Plastics Protocol to ensure our packaging is compatible with existing and cost-effective recycling infrastructures.

Our progress in Australia has been recognised by the Australian Packaging Covenant, with Unilever awarded the highest performing organisation in the “Large Pharmacy & Personal Care” category twice and also taking out the overall Recycling Award in 2016.

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. Last year, we were one of the first companies to voluntarily sign up to the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation’s (APCO) Australasian Recycling Label (ARL).

Along with other leading organisations such as Australia Post, Blackmores, Nestlé, Officeworks and Woolworths, Unilever is adopting the label with the ultimate goal of increasing recycling rates and reducing the amount of waste going to landfill.

The ARL aims to create greater transparency amongst industry, driving more sustainable supply chain models and outlining for consumers what product packaging is made from so that they can correctly recycle it after use.

“The Australasian Recycling Label has been the result of close collaboration and partnership,” Brooke Donnelly, CEO of APCO, explains, “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.”

Unilever looks forward to working closely with APCO and the ARL marketing partner Planet Ark as we continue to work towards a circular economy as part of our commitment to reducing our environmental impact under the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. As part of this commitment we provide technical and marketing advisory support to the Planet Ark team on driving consumer understanding of the ARL and have recently undertaken consumer testing for an integrated approach to PCR labelling.

Soft plastic recycling

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.

Through dedicated REDcycle collection bins at Coles and Woolworths, our partnership has helped divert over 2 million packs, or over 3.3 tonnes of flexible plastic packaging, away from landfill. Collectively, the efforts of manufacturers, retailers and consumers have diverted over 380 million pieces of plastic from landfill.

In New Zealand we work with the Packaging Forum on their Love NZ Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme.

Reducing waste in manufacturing

Continuing with our approach of reducing, reusing, recovering or recycling we have extended our ambition to become a zero waste business beyond our factories. 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’ve also reduced our total waste per tonne of production by 26% compared to 2016 – a 52% reduction compared to 2008 baseline.

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. After improving recycling at the site, the Tatura factory took on the challenge of upcycling left over building materials into useful items. 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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