Partnerships add power and pace
Plastic packaging is a hugely valuable and efficient material that helps people around the world access products – such as food and soap, for instance – that improve their lives. However, with its growing use, comes the growing problem of plastic waste.
The challenge is to keep plastic in the economy but out of the environment. Hence the need to move towards a circular ‘closed loop’ system.
Last year we made a commitment that, by 2025, all our plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable, and 25% of it will come from recycled plastic content. These targets are driving real change in our business – in particular, how we design packaging for recyclability and reuse.
But plastic pollution is not something we’ll ‘fix’ overnight and, equally, we can’t do it alone. Which is why we are adding our weight behind a raft of partnerships and collaborations where we can make more of a change, more quickly. Here are three of our most recent initiatives.
Getting to the source of the problem
Alongside 250 organisations – including many of the world’s largest packaging producers, brands, retailers and recyclers, as well as governments and NGOs – we have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.
This is a pledge to eradicate plastic waste and pollution at source, based on the vision of a circular economy, where plastics never become waste.
Mirroring our own 2017 commitment, signatories have pledged to: eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reusable packaging; ensure all plastic packaging can be easily and safely recycled or composted; and increase the amount of plastics reused or recycled into new packaging or products. All by 2025.
“The Global Commitment is an important step on our journey to eliminate plastic waste,” says Unilever CEO Paul Polman. “It’s critical that all the key actors in the system work together to accelerate our transition towards the circular economy and, as part of that, address the challenge of single-use plastics. Unilever is ready to play its part and calls on leading businesses and governments to join the movement.”
The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with UN Environment. It aims to create ‘a new normal’ for plastic packaging, with targets that are reviewed every 18 months, and become increasingly ambitious.
To recycle it, you must first collect it
In an ideal world, we would immediately buy all our plastic raw material from recycled sources. However, we are restricted by where it is available, in the right quantities and at the right quality. In some countries, the infrastructure for collecting and processing post-consumer recycled (PCR) content is advanced, so it’s readily available. In others, it’s almost impossible to get hold of.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, just 14% of plastic packaging globally is collected for recycling after use, with 40% ending up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems.
To help tackle this aspect of the problem, we are joining forces with Veolia – a world leader in waste management – to develop and scale up collection and reprocessing infrastructure, which will help channel recycled content back into the value chain. Starting in India and Indonesia, we will work to implement collection solutions, add capacity, and develop new processes and business models.
Marc Engel, Unilever’s Chief Supply Chain Officer, says: “The scale of the plastic waste issue is getting worse, not better, with the production of plastics expected to double over the next two decades. We all have a lot more to do to address this critical issue and we hope that by partnering with Veolia, we can take meaningful strides towards a circular economy.”
Laurent Auguste, Veolia’s Senior EVP for Development, Innovation and Markets, adds: “There is an undeniable need to transform the way plastic packaging end of life is currently managed to significantly reduce its environmental footprint. It will take a collaboration of a new kind between all the actors of the value chain.”
Putting our money where our mouth is
Together with other large consumer goods companies, such as PepsiCo, P&G and Coca-Cola, we collectively have pledged a total of US$100 million in funding to Circulate Capital, an investment firm that incubates and finances waste management solutions and infrastructure. It’s a unique investment model, designed to create the lasting systems change needed to address the ocean plastic crisis.
By demonstrating the investibility of waste management and recycling sectors, Circulate Capital’s aim is to attract the billions of dollars of institutional investment needed to scale companies and infrastructure across South and South-East Asia. These regions contribute disproportionately to ocean plastic pollution primarily because they lack the infrastructure to manage the problem.
According to David Blanchard, Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer: “Moving away from a linear ‘take-make-dispose’ approach to consumption to one that is circular by design will require new business models, investment in innovation and the development of infrastructure. This collaboration with Circulate Capital and other partners is an important step in unlocking the investment required to accelerate and scale up meaningful solutions to prevent plastic waste.”
Circulate Capital addresses the gaps needed to create an ecosystem of innovation, investment, entrepreneurship and public–private partnerships to solve the problem. The model relies on partnering with local innovators who are implementing solutions on the ground, and on incentivising a new generation of social entrepreneurs to build a fresh pipeline of projects.