Consumer goods giant Unilever has pledged that it will halve its use of virgin plastics by 2025, reflecting a fundamental rethink of its products and a shift towards new business models and materials.
With a plastic packaging footprint of around 700 kilotonnes per annum (ktpa), the owner of brands such as Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Lipton and Omo is aiming to recycling 600ktpa of plastics annually by 2025 while reducing its absolute use of plastic packaging by 100ktpa.
Already on track to achieve its previous target of using at least 25% recycled plastic in its packaging by 2025, the company said it would be reducing its virgin plastic footprint to 350ktpa by 2025.
To achieve the target, the company’s starting point will be the design stage, where it will be reducing the amount of plastics used in products, stated Alan Jope, Unilever CEO.
In addition, said Jope, Unilever will scale up new business models such as re-use and re-fill formats, “at an unprecedented speed and intensity,” to achieve the target.
Furthermore, the multinational giant will focus on the increased use of recycled sources, while ensuring that all its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable.
“Our plastic is our responsibility and so we are committed to collecting back more than we sell, as part of our drive towards a circular economy,” Jope said commenting on the 600ktpa recycling target.
The “daunting but exciting task”, he said, will help drive global demand for recycled plastic.
Unilever announced its “less, better, no” plastic framework in 2017, through which it aims to transform its approach towards plastic packaging.
The scheme encourages the use of re-fill systems, easy-to-recycle materials and replacement of plastics with innovative products, such as shampoo bars or refillable toothpaste tablets.
Commenting on the announcement, Ellen MacArthur, founder of recycling charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation said it was a “significant step” in creating a circular economy for plastic.
“By eliminating unnecessary packaging through innovations such as refill, reuse, and concentrates, while increasing their use of recycled plastic, Unilever is demonstrating how businesses can move away from virgin plastics,” she added, urging others to follow Unilever’s lead.
Greenpeace USA cautiously welcomed the Unilever decision to move away from throwaway plastic packaging, calling it “a step in the right direction”.
“Unilever’s continued emphasis on collection, alternative materials, and recycled content will not [however,] result in the systemic shift required to solve the growing plastic pollution problem,” said Graham Forbes global project leader at Greenpeace USA.
Forbes encouraged Unilever to prioritise its efforts upstream by redesigning single-use plastic and packaging out of its business model, and to be more specific about the investment it will be making in reusable and refillable alternatives.
“As one of the first global companies taking this challenge seriously, Unilever has the opportunity to lead the sector out of the plastic mess it has created,” Forbes said, warning that multinational corporations that don’t follow suit “will become increasingly irrelevant in a world where people aren’t willing to sacrifice a livable planet for the illusion of ‘convenience’.”