Investigation questions Unilever’s stance on reducing plastic waste

An investigation by news agency Reuters has uncovered discrepancies between consumer goods giant Unilever’s messaging on single-use plastic packaging, and its action to phase out the material’s use.

Single-use plastic sachets
Head and shoulders, Pantene and Dove shampoo single-use sachets on display at a sari-sari store
The company is one of the largest producers of multi-layered sachets – palm-sized pouches made up of several layers of plastic and aluminium foil, bonded using adhesives. The sachets are prevalent in developing countries, used to sell everyday products, such as laundry detergent, shampoo, and toothpaste.

Reuters’ report – Unilever’s Plastic Playbook – details the public statements that Unilever has made in recent years on multi-layered sachets, noting that Hanneke Faber, the company’s President for Global Food and Refreshments, told investors in 2019 that the packaging is “evil because you cannot recycle it.”

In July 2020, CEO Alan Jope ‘went further’, Reuters said. In response to a question about how using the sachets fit into Unilever’s stated plans to reduce plastic pollution, Jope said: “We have to get rid of them. It’s pretty much impossible to mechanically recycle and so it’s got no real value.”

However, Reuters found that eight months later, Unilever avoided new legislation in Sri Lanka to phase out the sachets. The company continued to sell the 6ml single-serving sachets of shampoo and hair conditioner, despite the ban applying to plastic sachets sized 20ml or smaller. Three sources told Reuters that Unilever ‘relabeled its 6ml sachets to indicate they should not be sold individually, rather in four-packs, as one 24ml unit.’

The sachets are typically sold in local shops, displayed in sheets stuck together with tear-away seams, allowing buyers to detach and purchase a single portion from a multi-pack. In a statement to Reuters, Unilever said it was ‘fully compliant with Sri Lanka’s regulations.’

Speaking to the Secretary of Sri Lanka’s Environment Ministry, Anil Jasinghe, Reuters found that, in 2020, Unilever had lobbied government officials to oppose efforts to phase out the packaging. The company also lobbied against proposed bans on plastic sachets in India and the Philippines, where legislation was later dropped – Reuters ‘could not determine if Unilever’s lobbying influenced the outcome’.

Publicly, Unilever has been promoting its efforts to recycle or reduce single-use plastic packaging. However, Reuters found that five of the company’s programmes launched over the last decade in India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka – including ‘novel recycling technology and refill vending machines’ – have ‘been dropped or not progressed beyond the pilot stage.’

Unilever told Reuters that ‘ending the use of multilayered plastic sachets was “a complex technical challenge, with no quick fixes.”’ Although the company would not disclose how many sachets it sells currently or whether its projects have reduced their use, Reuters said, a promotional video from 2012 stated that 40 billion units were sold each year.

Data from A Plastic Planet finds that 855 billion units of the packaging are used every year around the world – enough to cover ‘the entire surface of the earth’.

Unilever told Resource that it is continuing to work on moving away from multi-layered sachets, replacing them with alternatives such as mono-material sachets or refillable packaging. The company added that refill and reuse is still in nascent stages, with the company expected to share its learnings on refill projects this year.

Unilever said that the sachets are included in its commitment to halving the amount of virgin plastic in its packaging, and to achieve an absolute reduction of more than 100,000 tonnes in plastic.

Von Hernandez, global coordinator of Break Free From Plastic, told Reuters that big brands like Unilever had ‘appropriated’ what is known as ‘tingi’ buying culture in the Philippines – shops in developing countries would ‘measure out tiny portions of sugar, coffee, and other basics for sale to poor customers, who’d bring their own containers’.

According to Unilever, the sachets allow low-income consumers to buy everyday products in small quantities, supporting their available cash outlay. The company also claimed that the packaging provides dosage control. Buying an entire bottle, Unilever said, is seen by some consumers as an expense because more of the products can be used at any one time.

The consumer goods firm added that in some countries, consumers prefer to buy several sachets instead of a bigger pack in order to control their use of the product. However, when Reuters spoke to local residents in a low-income suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka, they found evidence that some households find it more cost-effective to save up to buy a larger bottle.

The 180ml recyclable bottle of Unilever’s Sunsilk shampoo costs 190 rupees (0.43 GBP), with a 6ml serving from the bottle working out as ‘25 per cent cheaper’ than buying the equivalent in 6ml sachets, which cost eight rupees (0.018 GBP).

A Unilever spokesperson told Resource: “We are working hard to address this challenge by phasing out multilayer sachets, which are difficult to recycle, and replacing them with recyclable alternatives, such as mono-material sachets.

“Alongside these efforts, we continue to explore different reusable and refillable packaging systems to enable our low-income consumers to access our products at a price point they can afford.

“While this is a complex technical challenge with no quick fixes, we are fully committed to working with industry partners and other stakeholders to develop viable, scalable alternatives which help to reduce plastic waste.”