The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan for

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Waste & packaging

Waste & packaging

We purchase over 2 million tonnes of packaging a year. Increasing resource scarcity means it is more urgent than ever to be efficient with packaging and find solutions to deal with ‘post-consumer’ waste.

We continually look at new ways to reduce, re-use, recycle and recover packaging and waste as we move towards becoming a zero waste business.

The business case is clear. Reducing waste creates efficiencies and lowers costs. Re-using materials extends their life, helping to use less of the earth’s precious resources. Recycling allows us to repurpose valuable materials that would otherwise have been wasted. The more we reduce, re-use, recycle and recover our packaging, the greater the cost savings in materials, energy, transport and disposal. The more we can design in a circular way, the more value we can create for our company and for others.

Our strategy

We are committed to accelerating our efforts towards the ‘circular economy’.

recycling in brazil

What is the purpose of packaging?

Packaging serves many purposes. It protects products, keeping them safe from contamination. It allows us to display vital information about how to use and dispose of goods safely. Packaging makes it easy to dispense a product, or to reseal it after use, and can help preserve a product for extended periods. It also offers convenience and portion control to match the different needs of consumers. In developing and emerging countries, many products such as margarines and shampoos are sold in single-use sachets to make them more accessible and affordable for people on low incomes.

However, packaging can often end up as waste in landfill or as litter. Just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, a third is left in fragile ecosystems and 40% ends up in landfill. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans1.

Concern is also growing about the resources being used to produce packaging. This concern has led to commitments by some leading manufacturers, including Unilever, to minimise resource inputs and increase the recyclability of packaging.

The Waste & Packaging pillar of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan contributes to a number of the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. In particular, shifting away from the “take-make-dispose” model of consumption to one which is circular, is a key priority in achieving Goal 12 – Sustainable Consumption & Production. Other relevant Global Goals include Goal 8 – Decent work and economic growth; Goal 9 – Industry, innovation and infrastructure; Goal 11 – Sustainable cities & communities; Goal 12 – Responsible consumption & production; and Goal 14 – Life below water.

The business case for action is clear. By using resources more efficiently we can cut costs, ensure we have affordable access to the materials we need for the long-term and be more appealing to consumers who prefer brands that are careful with their use of natural resources.

1Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A refreshed strategy

In 2016 we reviewed our sustainable packaging strategy, acknowledging the growing concerns of governments, NGOs and the general public on the issue of packaging waste in the environment. We assessed our achievements so far and identified areas where we could push ourselves even further.

Our refreshed strategy commits us to accelerate our efforts towards the ‘circular economy’, which means designing products so that resources are used in a cyclical way. Materials can be regenerated and constantly flow round a ‘closed loop’ system, rather than being used once and then discarded. This includes how we manage and use packaging waste once the consumer has finished with it.

In January 2017, we announced that all of our plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. This builds on our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan targets of halving the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020 and increasing the recycled plastic content in our packaging to 25% by 2025.

As part of our new commitment, we will ensure that there are established, proven examples of it being commercially viable for plastics re-processors to recycle the material. Additionally, in support of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and their New Plastics Economy initiative, we also announced that we will publish the full “palette” of plastics materials that we use in our packaging by 2020 to help create a plastics protocol for the industry.

To take our strategy into action our packaging engineers have new tools and guidelines available to them to help them make more informed choices when designing packaging. This includes new online training on the circular economy developed with the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

Our commitment

We aim to halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020. Our environmental targets are expressed on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product. We have taken a lifecycle approach with a baseline of 2010.

Progress to date

We have reduced our waste footprint, versus our 2010 baseline, by 28% per consumer use in 2016.

In addition, we have made a significant reduction in reducing waste from manufacturing. In 2016 we achieved a reduction in total waste of 96%† per tonne of production since 2008.

Independently assured by PwC

Future challenges

To move to a circular economy approach we will need to fundamentally rethink the way we design our products and packaging. This means carefully considering the systems in which our products flow.

We cannot succeed alone. There are many elements which are outside our control, such as selective collection of packaging waste, little or no infrastructure and limited investment in the waste industry. We will continue to work with other businesses and urge governments to implement policies and frameworks that facilitate this fundamental shift.

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Targets & performance

We have an ambitious commitment to halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products.


Waste & packaging
Our commitment

Halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020.1

Our performance

In 2016, our waste impact has reduced by 28% since 2010.

Our perspective

We are more than halfway towards meeting our 2020 commitment to reduce the waste associated with the disposal of our products. Our total footprint per consumer use has reduced by 28% since 20102 as we design packs which use less materials and as recycling rates increase.

We are making strong progress against our commitment in areas where we have direct control such as in the design of our products and in reducing waste in our own operations. For example, we have used compression injection technology to reduce the plastic in many of our tubs and recently launched black TRESemmé bottles in North America containing 25% recycled content.

We also continue to pilot and deploy new technologies and cutting-edge techniques to produce more lightweight packaging. For example, commercialising MuCell™ moulding technology has allowed us to reduce the plastic component in bottles by up to 15% versus the previous bottle.

In 2016 we reviewed our packaging waste strategy, and committed to including more recycled plastic in our packaging and in 2017 we further committed to ensure that all of our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Infrastructure improvements in recycling and recovery have also contributed to our performance, however, we are finding the challenge for post-consumer waste is in encouraging consumers to recycle, and having the right infrastructure in place to ensure materials are recovered and re-used. To do this, we work in partnership with others, including through industry collaboration initiatives, to stimulate recycling and recovery infrastructure, particularly for materials which are more complex to recycle, such as sachets in developing countries.

1 Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010 and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product.

2 The 2010 baseline has been restated by a reduction of 0.04g per consumer use for Waste. Applied to our 2015 results, the restated 2015 waste performance would have been a 26% decrease instead of a 29% decrease per consumer use compared to the 2010 baseline. Therefore, our 2016 performance of a 28% reduction per consumer use is an improvement versus our 2015 performance.

Independently assured by PwC.


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Our targets

Please see Independent Assurance for more details of our assurance programme across the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Reduce waste from manufacturing

  • By 2020 total waste sent for disposal will be at or below 2008 levels despite significantly higher volumes.

This represents a reduction of around 40% per tonne of production.

Versus a 1995 baseline, this represents an 80% reduction per tonne of production and a 70% absolute reduction.

We achieved our target in 2012 with 76,000 fewer tonnes of total waste than in 2008, a 51% reduction per tonne of production.

In 2016 we disposed of 143,903 fewer tonnes of total waste than in 2008, a 96% reduction per tonne of production.

Compared to 1995, this represents a 99% reduction in absolute terms.


  • By 2015 all manufacturing sites will achieve zero non-hazardous waste to landfill.

We achieved zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across our global factory network by end 2014. In 2016, we sent 0.18% of the non-hazardous waste generated in the year to landfill from five of our sites. Each incident at these individual sites was rectified by the end of 2016.*


  • All newly built factories will aim to generate less than half the waste of those in our 2008 baseline.

New factories in Turkey, the Philippines and the Ukraine started production in 2016. When fully operational each aims to generate less than half the waste of those in our 2008 baseline.


Our Perspective

We achieved our target of zero non-hazardous waste to landfill one year early, at the end of 2014. We believe this is a first for a company of our scale in our industry. Our focus since has been on maintaining zero non-hazardous waste to landfill, recognising that this is about an ongoing journey rather than achieving this for a moment in time.

In 2016, five sites disposed of a small amount of non-hazardous waste to landfill. We take any lapses very seriously and each incident at these individual sites was rectified by the end of 2016. We are confident our overall achievement is still industry leading and we have robust procedures in place to highlight any issues so that remedial action can be swiftly taken.

By replicating our zero waste model in other parts of our business, nearly 400 additional non-manufacturing sites have also eliminated non-hazardous waste to landfill.

Independently assured by PwC.

* We aim to maintain our achievement of zero non-hazardous waste to landfill (ZWL) across our manufacturing sites worldwide. However, incidents can occur where small amounts of non-hazardous waste are sent to landfill in error. We consider ZWL is maintained when less than 0.5% of non-hazardous waste is disposed to landfill in the 12-month period.

Reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging

By 2025 all of our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable.

New target 2017

We will report on this target in our 2017 Sustainable Living Report.


Our Perspective

Treating plastic packaging as a valuable resource is a key priority in accelerating our efforts to a circular economy.

In January 2017 we announced that all our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. As part of this new target, we will ensure it is technically possible and commercially viable for our plastic packaging to be reused or recycled. We have also committed to invest in proving, and then sharing with the industry, a technical solution to recycle multi-layered sachets, particularly for coastal areas which are most at risk of plastics leaking into the ocean.

In support of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its New Plastics Economy initiative, we also announced that we will publish the full ‘palette’ of plastics materials that we use in our packaging by 2020 to help create a plastics protocol for the industry.

Reduce packaging

By 2020 we will reduce the weight of packaging that we use by one third through:

  • Lightweighting materials
  • Optimising structural and material design
  • Developing concentrated versions of our products
  • Eliminating unnecessary packaging

The weight per consumer use has decreased by 15% in 2016 compared to 2010.


Our Perspective

Our results show that our efforts in the last few years to reduce packaging through innovations, lightweighting and material switching are now becoming visible. The results are also impacted by the effect of acquisitions and disposals.

Commercialising MuCell™ moulding technology has allowed us to reduce the plastic component in bottles by up to 15% versus the previous bottle. We estimate that this will bring significant reductions in the amount of plastics we use once applied to other products. Other examples of reduction initiatives include the use of compression injection technology in many of our tubs, conversion of bottles to flexible refill pouches and smart use of design strategy and technology enabling us to reduce layers within many of our sachets.

Recycle packaging

  • Working in partnership with industry, governments and NGOs, we aim to increase recycling and recovery rates on average by 5% by 2015 and by 15% by 2020 in our top 14 countries. For some this means doubling or even tripling existing recycling rates. We will make it easier for consumers to recycle our packaging by using materials that best fit the end-of-life treatment facilities available in their countries.

7% increase in recycling and recovery rates in 2016, over the 2010 average Recycling and Recovery Index (RRI), averaged across our top 14 countries.


  • By 2025 we will increase the recycled plastic material content in our packaging to 25%. This will act as a catalyst to increase recycling rates.

Around 3,830 tonnes of post-consumer recycled materials incorporated into our rigid plastic packaging in 2016.


Our Perspective

Recycling and recovery is a challenging target because we are reliant on public policy, infrastructure and consumer engagement. Despite this, we have seen an improvement in our recycling rate. The volume of materials recycled or recovered increased by 7% over 2015-2016 compared to our 2010 baseline.

In 2016 we saw a decrease in the volume of post-consumer recycled materials incorporated into our rigid plastic packaging – in part due to the greater use of board rather than plastic in product packaging as well as product delisting.

Availability of recycled content at an acceptable quality level remains a key challenge for us in many of our markets around the world. We have therefore started collaboration initiatives focused on producing quality recyclates which we are trialing in many of our packaging formats. For example, we have recently launched black TRESemmé bottles in North America containing 25% recycled content.

Tackle sachet waste

Our goal is to develop and implement a sustainable business model for handling our sachet waste streams by 2015.

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We continue to investigate the potential of new technologies in both developed and developing markets. Progress has been slower than we originally anticipated, however we feel that we are two thirds of the way there and will have a viable solution in the near future.


Our Perspective

Our aim is to develop a closed loop system for sachet waste. This will allow us to continue to provide the price and convenience of sachets to low-income consumers, while tackling the environmental issues associated with their use. These include litter and recyclability.

In India, we have shown that pyrolysis technology can be used to recover energy from multi-layered sachets, converting sachet waste into an industrial fuel. However, pyrolysis is still not an established technology and has several limitations, and so our progress has been slower than we anticipated. One limitation is the costs associated with the collection and processing of sachets versus the value obtained for the output product.

In 2016, we commenced the construction of a pilot plant in Indonesia to establish the commercial viability of one such technology. With this in place, we are around two thirds of the way towards achieving our target.

Eliminate PVC

We will eliminate PVC (polyvinyl chloride) from all packaging by 2012 (where technical solutions exist).

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99% of PVC packaging removed from our portfolio by end 2012.


Our Perspective

We have made very good progress in eliminating PVC from our packaging, including from the acquisitions we have made in recent years.

We have a robust system in place to ensure that any PVC entering the business through acquisitions is swiftly dealt with, and where there are no viable replacement options, such as the PVC used within the seals of metal lids, we are working with suppliers to develop appropriate technology to replace these materials. Replacement solutions can take many years to develop as they need to meet the functional requirements of manufacturing, filling and consumer use.

Reduce office waste

  • In our top 21 countries, at least 90% of our office waste will be reused, recycled or recovered by 2015 and we will send zero waste to landfill by 2017.

More than 99% of our office waste was reused, recycled or recovered and we sent zero waste to landfill in our top 21 countries in 2016.


  • By 2015 we will reduce paper consumption by 30% per head in our top 21 countries.

We achieved our target in 2013 with paper consumed per occupant 37% lower than 2010. In 2016 we reached a 62% reduction against our 2010 baseline.


  • We will eliminate paper in our invoicing, goods receipt, purchase order processes, financial reporting and employee expense processing by 2015, where legally allowable and technically possible.
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By 2015, 73% of our in-scope Business and Finance Services processes were completed electronically.


Our Perspective

By the end of 2016 we had made significant progress towards achieving our target of zero waste to landfill at our in-scope sites in our top 21 countries. Sites had reused, recycled or recovered more than 99% of our office waste. We have extended our waste reduction efforts beyond our top 21 countries and an additional 33 sites are now zero waste to landfill.

Paper consumption per occupant is now 62% lower than our 2010 baseline in our top 21 countries and we will continue to push consumption lower.

Although 73% of our in-scope transactions (excluding financial reporting and employee expense processes) were completed electronically in 2015, subsequent progress has been challenging. Some countries do not yet allow electronic invoicing and we have found there is still a reluctance amongst some suppliers to accept e-invoicing. Despite these challenges, we remain committed to eliminating paper in our business and financial services processes.

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