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Broader global effort

This partnership is part of a broader global effort by Unilever to shift its global portfolio of packaging to be 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. It has also committed to using at least 25 per cent recycled content (PCR) in our plastic packaging by 2025.

To meet these commitments, Unilever has adopted an internal framework which shapes its thinking and future innovation around three key focuses: Less plastic- such as with injection compression technology which saved 21 tonnes of plastic in 2017, better plastic- eliminating problematic/unnecessary plastics, using recyclable materials and more recycled content, and no plastic E.g. biodegradable PG tips teabags launched in the UK earlier this year.

“However, in order to reach our targets, aside from product design innovation we also need to address challenges of low availability and quality of PCR on the market. That’s why we’re also developing other emerging technologies,” says a Unilever spokesperson.

For example, it has partnered with start-up company Ioniqa and the largest global producer of PET resin Indorama Ventures to pioneer a new technology, which converts PET waste back into virgin grade material for use in food packaging.

This technology has already been used to create new Hellmann’s mayonnaise bottles. If proven successful at industrial scale, in future it will be possible to convert all PET back into high quality, food-grade packaging.

Unilever believes that this fully circular solution could lead to an industry transformation, since it can be repeated infinitely.

Testing emerging technologies

Unilever is also trialling a ground-breaking new CreaSolv® Sachet recycling technology to recycle plastic sachets. Billions of sachets are sold every year, particularly in developing markets. They’re an efficient way of reaching low-income consumers with products that would otherwise be unaffordable to them. However, without a recycling solution, sachets end up in landfill, waterways or the ocean. Unilever hopes that CreaSolv® will transform sachets from a global problem into a sustainable economic opportunity.

To recycle plastic sachets using CreaSolv® technology the company needs to work with municipalities and retailers to set up waste collection schemes so that the sachets to be recycled. For example, in Indonesia it has helped communities to develop over 2600 Community Waste Banks in 18 cities where they can collect inorganic waste and sell it based on its value, ultimately reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill.

For the moment materials feeding the CreaSolv® plant are sourced from the Community Waste Banks. Making it technically possible for all its plastic packaging to be reused or recycled is part of the solution. However, Unilever also needs to demonstrate established, proven examples of it being commercially viable for re-processors to recycle the material.

“We are making good progress and continue to iron out any issues linked to the technical and commercial viability. For instance, we have learned a huge amount through our pilot plant such as improving the layout and interfaces between the equipment so that it is more efficient,” shares a Unilever spokesperson.

“Once we have done this, it is our ambition to start discussions with investors and others interested parties to develop a full-scale commercial plant capable of processing 12-30 tonnes of material a day.

“To support a commercial plant, we need to substantially increase the volume of flexible plastics we collect. Our ambition is to capture 1,500 tonnes in 2019 and nearly 5,000 tonnes of material in 2020. For us to achieve this we need to work with governments and industry to develop the necessary collection infrastructure. This includes introducing source separation in households so wet and dry waste can be segregated for collection – for example Community Waste Banks.”

Unilever is now leveraging its waste bank network to collect multi-layered flexible sachets. For instance, it has started a flexible waste pilot in East Java to collect pouches and is creating an end-to-end solution by sending this material to its CreaSolv plant for recycling.

Wide engagement

Unilever is a co-founding signatory of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment, launched at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali. The Commitment aims to create ‘a new normal’ for plastic packaging.

It’s also a co-founding partner of investment management firm Circulate Capital’s Ocean Fund, dedicated to incubating and financing infrastructure that combats ocean plastic pollution in South and South East Asia.

By engaging with policy makers Unilever advocates for a more effective and efficient waste infrastructure, including: promoting integrated waste management solutions, stretching national recycling targets, at-source separation and collection systems for recyclables, incentives to increase the use of recycled content, voluntary industry-led and funded programs and mechanisms to create a level playing field. It’s also supportive of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations which reflect the unique waste management requirements of the market.

Another challenge is around helping consumers to change their behaviour. “Our responsibility is to make sure our packaging is fully recyclable but also easy for consumers to recycle. So, we aim to make our labelling as clear as possible for consumers and we support national labelling schemes where they exist, for example the On-Pack Recycling Label scheme in the UK,” says a Unilever spokesperson.

It has also signed up as founding member of the UK Plastics Pact, an ambitious multi-stakeholder initiative, led by WRAP, which aims to transform the plastic packaging system in the UK and keep plastic in the economy and out of the ocean.

By acknowledging that the issue of plastic waste is a shared responsibility that requires bold action across the value chain, Unilever’s steps towards change are progressive, inclusive and hold the potential for wide reaching change- critical in the transition towards a circular economy.