One area of direct concern for Unilever is the fact that just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, and only 9% is actually recycled, while 40% ends up in landfill. Cheap, flexible and multipurpose plastic has become the ubiquitous material of today’s fast-moving economy, and Unilever’s business relies on it, the company says. Now, the CPG giant is recognizing that its growth has come “at the expense of the environment,” and a portion of its more than $1 billion a year it spends on R&D goes to “new plastics innovation,” reports CNBC.
Moving away from the “take-make-dispose” model is key to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Unilever says. And, from a purely economic perspective, “discarding plastic makes zero sense.” According to the World Economic Forum, plastic packaging waste represents an $80 billion to $120 billion loss to the global economy every year. A more circular approach is needed, one where “we not only use less packaging, but design the packaging we do use so it can be reused, recycled or composted,” Unilever says.
Unilever defines a circular economy as one that is “restorative and regenerative by design.” This means that materials constantly flow around a “closed loop” system, rather than being used once and then discarded. As a result, the value of materials, including plastics, is not lost by being thrown away.
Last week, Unilever announced the UK launch of Cif ecorefill, a new at-home technology that allows consumers to refill and reuse their Cif spray bottles for life.
Unilever’s recently appointed chief research and development officer, Richard Slater, said the company’s commitment to sustainability was a major reason for him joining the company in April, 2019. “I’m convinced that we are going to move more as a society into some of those spaces around reduce and reuse, and [Unilever] will be at the forefront of doing that,” he told CNBC.