- Unilever has committed to halving its virgin plastic use by 2025 by increasing the amount of recycled plastic in the packaging for its products and developing alternative packaging materials.
- The company will also boost its collection and recycling of plastic packaging, aiming for 600,000 metric tons per year by 2025 — slightly less than the 700,000 metric tons the company produces, Unilever announced in a press release Monday.
- "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 re-use and re-fill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity," Unilever CEO Alan Jope said in a statement.
Packaging is a major contributor to plastic waste. It represented 36% of all plastic production in 2015 and its share of the waste stream is even larger. A 2017 study by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Georgia; and the Sea Education Association found most packaging plastic enters the waste stream within one year of production.
Jope's statement explains the extent of the work ahead for Unilever, and any manufacturer looking to substantially reduce virgin plastic use. The company's steps to meet these goals will include:
- Investment and partnerships in waste collection and processing.
- The purchase and use of recycled plastics in its packaging.
- Participation in extended producer responsibility schemes where Unilever directly pays for the collection of its packaging.
Unilever is not alone in making drastic plastic reduction promises. PepsiCo pledged to reduce virgin plastic in its products by 35% by 2025. Walmart (with its private-label brands) and Keurig Dr. Pepper are working toward full recyclability. Recycling players like Terracycle, with its "waste-free" e-commerce platform Loop (Unilever and PepsiCo are partners) are working on solutions for reducing single-use or non-recyclable plastic packaging, but so far no radical solutions have scaled.
Greenpeace is skeptical that Unilever's Monday announcement, or any of the existing corporate initiatives to reduce single-use plastics in the supply chain, will make a real dent in the fundamental problem.
"While this is a step in the right direction, for a company that uses 700,000 metric tons of plastic annually, Unilever’s continued emphasis on collection, alternative materials, and recycled content will not result in the systemic shift required to solve the growing plastic pollution problem," said Graham Forbes, global project leader at Greenpeace USA in a reaction statement.
Just days before the Monday announcement, Greenpeace published a report calling out such corporate efforts as "false solutions" that don't actually move away from the single-use plastic paradigm in any real way. Instead, the group calls for more specific details about how companies such as Unilever plan to invest in reusable or refillable alternatives.
Beyond the Loop pilot, many of the largest consumer product companies remain more focused on using higher levels of recycled content in their current offerings than on reduction or reuse. Investment by Unilever and others in initiatives such as the Closed Loop Fund is seen as a way to help increase the amount of available feedstock to pursue that path. While extended producer responsibility policies for packaging haven't yet taken hold in the U.S., the topic has garnered increasing interest and may soon become unavoidable in certain states in the near future.