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Man and woman recycling Unilever products at the local recycling plant in Brazil

Rethinking plastic packaging

Average read time: 12 minutes

Rethinking plastic packaging

We’re completely rethinking our approach to packaging to use less, better or no plastic.

Cif's refillable bottle

The challenge

Plastic is a very useful material for getting our products to consumers safely and efficiently. It’s often the lowest carbon footprint option compared to other materials. However, plastic is ending up in our environment. This has to stop.

Global research has shown that without action, twice as much virgin plastic will be created and four times more plastic could flow into our oceans by 2040. The plastic we produce is our responsibility. It’s clear we must reduce the amount of virgin plastic we use and completely rethink our approach to packaging. We must also keep plastic in use for as long as possible in a circular loop system. That means we need much better systems to collect, process and repeatedly reuse it.

We’re working hard to make progress in our business, but we can’t turn the tide on plastic pollution alone. That’s why we’re working with others and calling for a global UN treaty with legally binding targets and for optimal extended producer-responsibility legislation in which we pay for packaging collection. Read more about how we’re using our voice to fix the broken plastic system.

Our mantra and framework: Less plastic. Better plastic. No plastic.

We’re making progress towards our ambitious plastics goals, guided by the following framework:

  • Less plastic: cutting down how much plastic we use in the first place through lighter designs, reuse and refill formats, and concentrated products which use less packaging.
  • Better plastic: making sure the plastic we use is designed to be recycled and that our products use recyclable plastic packaging.
  • No plastic: using refill stations and formats to cut out new plastic completely and switching to alternative packaging materials such as paper, glass or aluminium.

Our actions on all three are key to delivering our virgin plastic reduction goal. Due to our step up on recycled plastic, we've reduced our virgin plastic footprint since 2018 by around 16%, from 712,000 tonnes to 599,000 tonnes2. Find out more about our progress on less plastic, better plastic and no plastic below.

Less plastic

Sometimes a complete rethink of how we design and package products is the best way to reduce plastic. Reducing the amount of material in a product by just a few grams can make a huge difference across an entire product range. Over the last decade we’ve already cut the weight of our packaging by a fifth through better and lighter designs.

We’re encouraging consumers to think of bottles of our cleaning and laundry products as a 'bottle for life' – just like a 'bag for life' they might use for shopping. For instance, our Cif customers are encouraged to reuse their spray bottles and our OMO laundry customers can use their 3-litre bottles for life too.

Ultraconcentrated products help us give consumers the same products but with much less plastic and smaller packaging. Comfort’s ultraconcentrated laundry formulas offer a smaller dosage than any other product on the market. Our Love Beauty and Planet concentred shampoos and conditioners provide the same number of uses with half the plastic.

Our Beauty & Personal Care brands are challenging our throwaway culture too. Dove has started a beauty ‘refillution’ with its first-ever durable, stainless steel refillable deodorant case which is designed to be used for life.

Better plastic

Whenever we use plastic, we make sure we’re choosing better options – that means recycled and recyclable plastics. Currently, 53% of our packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable. This is our actual recyclability rate (in line with the EMF Global Commitment definition of 'recyclable'), which is significantly less than the 70% of our packaging portfolio that is technically recyclable with existing technology. This gap is an industry-wide challenge and is primarily driven by a lack of collection and recycling infrastructure. We’re working with local governments and partners to close this gap, while we continue to deploy new materials and technologies.

We’re keeping plastics in the system, and out of the environment, by buying recycled plastic – sometimes called post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR). We’re ramping up how much recycled plastic we use. Since 2018, we’ve increased our use of recycled plastic to around 17% of our total plastic footprint. This puts us on track to meet our commitment of at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025.

17% PCR In just three years, we’ve increased the amount of post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) to around 17% of our total plastic packaging portfolio.

For instance, in 2021 Hellmann’s launched 100% recycled packaging in two-thirds of its markets, Knorr launched 100% recycled plastic bouillon tubs and lids in Europe, and Swedish Glace’s plant-based ice cream comes in recycled plastic tubs. Our Dove beauty brand uses 100% recycled plastic bottles in Europe and North America (where technically feasible) and 98% of its new refillable deodorant packaging in the US is made from recycled plastic. Our Love Beauty and Planet hair and skin care brand, is also working to incorporate recycled plastic in bottle caps and pumps.

There are plenty of technical challenges that we’re tackling in our better plastic journey. We’re developing new solutions, including chemical recycling for plastics which are hardest to recycle such as multi-layered and flexible packaging. We’re also aware that not all packaging that’s technically recyclable will actually be recycled. It’s technically possible to recycle around 70% of our product portfolio. However, what is actually recycled is lower because of the lack of infrastructure in communities.

Recycled plastic packaging also has to meet the same technical and safety standards as virgin plastic – standards which are higher for food packaging. Our Magnum ice cream brand worked with a supplier to overcome this challenge and launch recycled plastic ice cream tubs (see case study below).

In our Home Care division, our dilutable laundry detergents in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are made with recycled plastic and cost less than undiluted detergents.

Collecting and processing plastic

We can’t reach our ‘better plastic’ goals unless there’s enough high-quality recycled plastic available. There’s no shortage of plastic in the system – but there are some big challenges. Turning plastic waste and pollution into usable material relies on local collection and sorting facilities. There also needs to be technical innovation and new solutions to make collecting and reprocessing materials commercially viable.

Our business in India was one of the first to help collect and process more plastic than it sold, and we have roadmaps for achieving this in other markets including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, UK and US.

However, we have more work to do to scale up our collection efforts. This includes direct investments, such as in the US where we've made a $15 million investment in the Closed Loop Partners’ Leadership Fund to help improve recycling. Partnerships in waste collection and processing, building capacity by buying recycled plastics, and supporting extended producer-responsibility schemes will also be critical to drive progress.

We’re developing technology-led solutions too. For instance in Indonesia, we’re supporting urban communities to develop systems to collect and sell waste. A digital platform called ‘Google My Business’ enables consumers to find their nearest waste banks via Google Maps. In China we’re using artificial intelligence to increase recycling rates (see case study below). And together with partners in the UK and US, we’re working to tackle the challenge of black plastic, which typically can’t be detected by waste sorting and recycling machines (see case study below).

We also need to consider the impact of the plastic system on people’s livelihoods, as plastic is frequently collected by waste collectors in the informal economy, often working under dirty and dangerous conditions and without earning adequate wages or receiving social benefits. These individuals and their communities are an integral part of the plastics solution, because without them we will not be able to scale up our collection efforts to meet our goals for a waste-free world.

This issue is a priority for Unilever, and we are developing a global framework on how we approach and include human rights in our plastic value chain, especially for informal waste collectors who are involved in collection and processing in a number of developing markets. We expect to launch this in 2022 and will be working with our peers and expert NGOs to build a common approach across industry.

In India, for example, we’re working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to protect the livelihoods of informal waste collectors, who help segregate, collect and recycle packaging. The partnership has reached more than 33,000 households and collected 2,500 tonnes of plastic waste so far, and will scale up to include more households in the coming years. We’re using what we’ve learned and replicating our work with UNDP with other partners in countries such as Pakistan.

Finding new solutions for flexible packaging

Plastic sachets allow low-income consumers to buy small amounts of products – often ones that provide hygiene or nutrition benefits like shampoo, food and toothpaste – that they would otherwise not be able to afford. However, flexible packaging, such as sachets and pouches, is particularly difficult to improve. In the long-term, we want to transition from using multi-layered sachets to mono-material sachets that are technically recyclable, and improve their collection and recyclability, particularly in our markets across Asia, where we sell more products in sachets. We’re learning there are no easy solutions. It’s a technical challenge, made more difficult by different local regulations on collection, sorting and recycling.

We’re developing new business models to reuse packaging and increase collection. For example, in the Philippines we have a sachet recovery programme to incentivise collection of post-consumer sachet waste in and around Manila. We’re also exploring how we can make sachets from single materials instead of multiple layers, making them easier to recycle. In Vietnam, we launched a trial for recyclable mono-material sachets of CLEAR shampoo. The recycled material is reused for items like refuse bags and containers, but with scale there’s potential to return it to our supply chain as recycled plastic. In Indonesia we’re testing solutions to eliminate the need for plastic by offering refill stations. For example, in Bintaro, Indonesia, shoppers can use a refillery in the Saruga packaging-free store to buy food, beauty and homecare products using their own containers.

In Europe we’re members of CEFLEX, a consortium aiming to make flexible packaging in Europe circular by 2025. We contributed to an industry roadmap and guidelines exploring solutions.

We are committed to finding a solution for flexible packaging and we’re partnering with others to make progress.For instance in the UK we’ve partnered with other brands to launch the Flexible Plastic Fund to improve flexible plastic recycling rates. We’re working with Mars, Mondelēz, Nestlé, PepsiCo and UK retailers to incentivise the recycling of flexible packaging.

No plastic

No plastic means rethinking how we design products, developing whole new business models, and new shopping experiences for our consumers. It also means switching out plastic for alternative options such as metals, paper and glass.

Most of the metal that we use in our packaging is for our deodorant cans. Currently around 20% of the metal we use in our packaging is made from a combination of post-consumer recycled metal and post-industrial recycled metal.

The majority of the glass we use is for our Foods and Refreshment product packaging. On average, around 40% recycled glass is used in the glass jars and bottles that we use for our Foods and Refreshment packaging in Europe.

We need bold innovations that challenge existing designs, materials and business models. Our priority is to fundamentally rethink our approach and pave the way for new solutions such as reusable and refillable formats.

Richard Slater, our Chief R&D Officer

The reuse-refill revolution

We want to help bring about a reuse-refill revolution. We’re working on ways that shoppers can buy one container and refill it over and over again. Refills can be bought online or in a shop, or through in-store dispensing machines. A service could pick up empty containers, replenish them and deliver them back. Or people can return packaging at a store or drop-off point, as part of a deposit-return scheme.

We’ve learnt there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We’ve appointed dedicated in-house teams to build expertise, test, learn and refine different approaches. Refills are a key part of our innovation pipeline and 55 of our product lines have reuse integrated. More of our brands are becoming available through refill stations, with pilot projects exploring how to make refilling our products easy, affordable and desirable. Together with major supermarkets we’re trialling refill projects in 11 countries.

We’re sharing the lessons that we’ve learnt along the way, with the aim of bringing key stakeholders on board – including governments, retailers, manufacturers, delivery services, civil society organisations and, of course, consumers.

Plastic-free packaging and products

We’re finding ways to remove plastic entirely from some of our products and packaging.

Our brands are using a range of alternative materials. Plastic-free packaging innovations include bamboo toothbrushes from Signal, fully recyclable paper food sachets for Colman’s, recyclable glass soup bottles from Knorr and paper ice cream tubs from Carte D’Or, Ben & Jerry’s and Wall’s. Persil laundry capsules now come in plastic-free boxes that can be fully recycled as paper in France. Alberto Balsam have launched a plastic-free solid shampoo bars in fully recyclable packaging and Dove’s single-bar soaps now come plastic-free. Seventh Generation also has a zero-plastic range on eCommerce channels in the US, using packaging made from steel.

We’re taking plastic out of our products too. Simple’s biodegradable facial cleansing wipes are made from sustainably sourced wood pulp and plant fibres.


(a) The reporting period for all our plastic goals is 1 July to 30 June. Since 2021, the scope of our plastic reporting has been increased to 29 countries, representing 84% of our turnover.

(b) 2019 and 2020 numbers previously reported on this page were total plastic footprint. The numbers we are now reporting reflect our total virgin plastic footprint for the reporting period.

[1]

The reporting period for all our plastic goals is 1 July to 30 June. Since 2021, the scope of our plastic reporting has been increased to 29 countries, representing 84% of our turnover.

[2]

2019 and 2020 numbers previously reported on this page were total plastic footprint. The numbers we are now reporting reflect our total virgin plastic footprint for the reporting period.

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