Unilever’s Biz Relies on ‘Cheap, Multipurpose’ Plastic, but Wants to Change, CPG Says

(Credit: Unilever, Flickr Creative Commons, Peter Kernwein)

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.

But a focus on a circular economy does not stem simply from environmental responsibility. Business benefits are clear, Unilever says. “More effective use of materials means lower costs and less waste. It means new sources of value for customers and citizens, better risk management of raw materials, and improved approaches to the supply chain,” according to the company’s sustainability commitment. That commitment includes a goal of having 100% of its plastic packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, reducing the weight of its packaging by one third by 2020, and halving the waste associated with the disposal of its products by 2020.

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.

The announcement comes at a time when UK demand for less plastic and more refillable and reusable solutions are on the rise, with 62% of people saying reuse is even more important to them than recycling. More than eight in ten (83%) people wish they had access to more refillable products and only 16% are currently buying refills. The largest barriers are lack of awareness on refill products or simply not being able to find them on supermarket shelves.Made with 75% less plastic, Cif ecorefill attaches to the current Cif Power & Shine bottles. It releases the super-concentrated product into the bottle, which is filled with water at home. The product will remove 1.5 million plastic bottles from UK supermarkets.

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.

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