Unilever announces plans to reduce plastic footprint

Unilever, the global manufacturer of household brands such as Dove and Persil, has announced that it will commit to halving its use of virgin plastic by 2025.

The Anglo-Dutch company, which currently uses around 700,000 tonnes of plastic packaging annually, plans to halve this figure by reducing its absolute plastic usage by 100,000 tonnes, investing in refillable packaging and alternative packaging materials.

An image of Unilever's logo

Aiming to accelerate its use of recycled plastic, Unilever has also announced that it will invest in waste management infrastructure in order to help collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually by the middle of the next decade.

The company claims that it is already on schedule to meet its existing commitment to ensure that all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and to use at least 25 per cent recycled plastic in its packaging by this date.

Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, said: “Plastic has its place, but that place is not in the environment.

“Our starting point has to be design, reducing the amount of plastic we use and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources. We are also committed to ensuring all our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable.

“This demands a fundamental rethink in our approach to our packaging and products. It requires us to introduce new and innovative packaging materials and scale up new business models, like reuse and refill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity.”

Dove products

Ellen MacArthur, founder of circular economy organisation the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, added: “Today’s announcement by Unilever is a significant step in creating a circular economy for plastic. By eliminating unnecessary packaging through innovations such as refill, reuse and concentrates, while increasing their use of recycled plastic, Unilever is demonstrating how businesses can move away from virgin plastics.

“We urge others to follow their lead, so collectively we can eliminate the plastic we don’t need, innovate, so what we do need is circulated, and ultimately build an economic system where plastic packaging never becomes waste.”

Producer responsibility

Unilever’s announcement indicates that the company is gearing up for an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme, as proposed in the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy in December 2018.

This will require producers to cover the cost of dealing with waste packaging, and it is hoped that an EPR framework will encourage improvements in packaging design by charging lower fees for packaging that contains higher levels of recycled content.

Calling for increased producer responsibility, David Palmer Jones, CEO of Suez UK, said: “Unilever’s bold commitment to cut back on the use of virgin plastics shows that greater producer responsibility plays a significant role in reducing the planet’s reliance on non-renewable resources and makes the economic and environmental case for regulating for, and investing in the greater production of secondary raw materials.

“Global producers like Unilever, P&G, Nestle and Coca Cola know that their consumers want to buy products free from unsustainable and unnecessary packaging, so now it’s time for the government to act and make good on its commitment to regulate and drive change so all producers play their part to preserve natural resources and tackle the scourge of plastic waste leakage littering our countryside and polluting the oceans.

“Defra has set out an ambitious vision in its Resources and Waste Strategy for a more sustainable UK economy which has significant support among manufacturers, local authorities, recycling organisations and the public, but timetables are drifting which will slow this vital transition.

“Now is the time to start delivering on this policy if the government wants to cement a legacy of achieving the long-term environmental ambitions set out over the past two years.”

As a founding member of the UK Plastics Pact, which aims to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging by 2025, Unilever has shown commitment to reducing its plastic waste. The company recently launched its #GetPlasticWise campaign, which comprises a five-point plan to keep plastic out of the environment.

Despite the company’s efforts, Sian Sutherland, co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet, believes that Unilever should be doing more to reduce its environmental impact: “Unilever is one of the few who are showing real intent to turn off the plastic tap and we praise them for it.

“However, Unilever is one of the top five polluters of our planet and we want to see them being more ambitious by reducing overall plastic by 50 per cent, not just virgin plastic.

“Recycled plastic is still only one step away from the bin, incinerator, landfill or ocean. It is never going to be our final answer and we need to admit this now.”

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