Unilever’s steps towards the circular economy
As the company chases sustainability, Unilever is asked for a revolutionary approach regarding research and development.
How is Unilever being consistent with the idea of a circular economy? Let us first start with what circular economy means. The system is a regenerative loop in which products are not abandoned after the first use, but instead recovered and recycled to obtain a new life and to maintain their value. Unilever is keeping this notion in mind to face the requests of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, fighting also the plastic waste problem which has at the very heart the linear “take-make-dispose” model of consumption, where products get manufactured, bought, used, and then thrown away.
Unilever, as one of the most important consumer goods company in the world, is acutely aware of the causes and consequences of this linear model. At the moment, 40% of plastic packaging used globally ends up in landfills, and this trend is no longer affordable. Only 14% of that waste is sent to recycling, while just 9% of it actually gets recycled and acquires a new life after the first stage post-consumption.
By 2025, Unilever wants to be in line with an ecological vision, and to do so it will commit to:
Halve the amount of virgin plastic used in its packaging;
Help collect and process more plastic packaging than they sell;
Ensure that 100% of Unilever’s plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable;
Increase the recycled plastic material contained in its packaging to 25%.
As far as these points are concerned, Unilever is working on a series of investments and partnerships to improve waste management infrastructures, purchasing and using of recycled plastics, also participating in extended producer responsibility schemes in which they directly pay for the collection of their packaging.
Halving virgin plastics ensures a decrease in plastic entering the system, while Unilever’s second key commitment, the collection and the processing of more plastic packaging than the one sold, will help the organization to collect and treat around 600.000 tonnes of plastic annually by 2025.
“Less plastic. Better plastic. No plastic.” This the internal framework Unilever presents to help itself addressing the four above-mentioned commitments. From 2017 this framework keeps outlining the company’s approach towards business and innovation.
“Less Plastic” reflects the drastic reduction of packaging volume by 20% that the organization designed from 2010. The improvements happened via light-weighting and design advances, and an example is Cif ecorefill, which is made of 75% less plastic that is also 100% recyclable once the envelopes are removed.
“Better Plastic” is about working with governments and partners to build infrastructures to keep plastics out of the environment. To do so, products need to be recycled and recyclable, not using problematic materials. Some of Unilever’s brands are now incorporating post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic into their packaging; for instance, Cif Active Gel bottles in Argentina are using 100% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET).
“No plastics” is an alternative way of thinking, that removes unnecessary plastic and uses other materials such as aluminium, glass and paper where possible.
Unilever enhances the “refilling-reusing” models. An example is Indonesia’s Saruga packaging-free store in Bintaro, a refillery of the multinational where people must use their own containers and they can buy as much product as they want.