Unilever's commitment to the Circular Economy

Unilever, as one of the world's leading suppliers of Food, Home and Personal Care products reaching 2.5 billion consumers a day across 190 countries, is acutely aware of the consequences of a linear take-make-dispose model and have the desire to positively change it. Treating plastic packaging as a valuable resource to be managed efficiently and effectively is a key priority in achieving sustainable development goals and, in doing so, shifting away from a "take-make-dispose" model of consumption to one which is fully circular.

This is one of the drivers of Unilever's recent call for the consumer goods industry to step-up its efforts to create a circular economy for plastics. This call to action came less than one year after Unilever made its industry-leading commitment to ensure 100% of its plastic packaging was fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Unilever's landmark packaging move

Unilever's landmark packaging move in 2017 aimed to find a new life for rigid plastic recycled from Australian homes by the introduction of Australian sourced post-consumer recycled plastic for bottles of locally made and well-known Home and Personal Care brands such as OMO, Dove, Surf, Sunsilk and TRESemmé.

The move means that Unilever will introduce at least 25% recycled plastic into bottles for key brands and go further wherever technically possible. This will create an end market and new life for approximately 750 tonnes of recycled plastic per year – equivalent to more than 100m single-use plastic bags* –representing a significant step forward in accelerating Australia's circular economy by creating local demand for rigid plastic (such as shampoo and laundry detergent bottles) recycled through local council yellow kerbside collection bins.

Unilever became the first major consumer goods company in Australia to make the shift to source high volumes of locally recycled High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) plastic across home and personal care brands. HDPE is a more rigid plastic type, used commonly in plastic bottles for home cleaning and personal care products. Previously, recycled HDPE plastic has been challenging to source and use for these product categories due to economic and technical feasibility.

The future

As it stands, just 14% of plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, a third is left in fragile ecosystems, and 40% ends up in landfill. Australia’s recycling rate is 65% across all packaging and 31% for plastic with rates starting to flatline. Plastic packaging waste represents an $80 billion loss to the global economy every year.

While Unilever recognises that they have made progress on their packaging targets in Australia and New Zealand, they are transparent in the fact that there is more work to do with availability as well as economic and technical feasibility still major barriers in using recycled plastic content across their packaging.

They are proud to be taking this step forward, but no business can create a circular economy in isolation. Creating a local market and demand for all types of recycled plastic is critical and heavy lifting is needed from all players involved - suppliers, packaging converters, brand owners, policy makers and retailers, collectors, sorters and recyclers. We need a complete shift in how we think about and use resources.

Their work on reducing the impact of their packaging and driving a circular economy is aligned to their Sustainable Living Plan (SLP) ambition to halve the environmental impact of their business and de-couple their environmental impact from their growth.

Read more: https://www.unilever.com.au/sustainable-living/the-unilever-sustainable-living-plan/
*Based on average single-use grocery plastic bag weight of 5.5g