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How we’re aiming for greater impact with updated plastic goals


We recently announced an evolved sustainability agenda to make more tangible progress on the big complex challenges we face. Pablo Costa, Global Head of Packaging, explains what that means for our approach to plastic, and how our updated goals are aimed at making greater impact.

Pablo Costa, Unilever’s Global Head of Packaging in a blue shirt and navy suit

Packaging is vital for our business. It helps us serve the needs of people around the world. It enables us to transport and keep our products safe and in top condition. It’s also central to the experience of our consumers and to delivering unmissable superior brands.

But we know that the sourcing, use and end-of-life of our packaging must be carefully considered and designed to have a positive impact on our planet and society.

Plastic is a very useful packaging material. It’s versatile, more lightweight than alternatives like glass, and more durable and waterproof than alternatives like paper.

However, a large amount of plastic packaging is mismanaged and ends up in the environment. We recognise we’re part of that problem, so we’ve got to be part of the solution, too.

That’s why we’ve identified plastic as one of our four sustainability priorities in our Growth Action Plan – which is all about doing fewer things, better, with greater impact.

Looking back, we have already made real, tangible progress to reduce plastic waste and create a circular economy for plastic packaging.

Using less virgin plastic

We’ve reduced our virgin plastic use by 18% against a 2019 baseline, and been recognised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) as one of the businesses making the most progress in this space.

We introduced new product formats and packaging solutions like laundry sheets and capsules in cardboard boxes, to reduce or remove plastic entirely. We trialled over 50 reusable and refillable packaging models globally, and even managed to scale some at-home refill solutions. And we redesigned packaging to be lighter, which can reduce both plastic and transport emissions.

Incorporating more recycled plastic

We’ve increased our recycled plastic use to 22% of our global plastic packaging portfolio, putting us firmly on track to meet our 25% goal by 2025. We helped create the global demand for, and supply of, high-quality recycled plastic (also known as post-consumer resin or ‘PCR’). Our number of PCR suppliers has increased from just two in 2016 to over 60 today. And many of our biggest brands – like Hellmann’s, Dove and Sunlight – use 100% PCR in their bottles, where technically feasible.

Breaking new ground through partnerships and collaboration

Through our long-term partnerships, we’ve also been at the forefront of industry collaborations.

In 2017, we were the first major FMCG to sign up to the Global Commitment – an initiative by EMF and the United Nations Environment Programme – and commit to making our plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable. Its aim is to unite signatories under a common vision for a circular economy with shared targets, rules and reporting metrics. Today, the 500 signatories represent 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally.

Through the Consumer Goods Forum’s Plastic Waste Coalition of Action, we created and implemented the Golden Design Rules for optimal plastic packaging design, production and recycling. Today, 72% of our plastic packaging portfolio is technically recyclable using existing technology. For example, we’re rolling out technically recyclable toothpaste tubes for Signal and Mentadent, as well as trigger sprays across Cif, Domestos and Lifebuoy.

More work to do

While it’s important to acknowledge the progress we’ve made, we also recognise that we’ve fallen short against some of our most ambitious goals.

When we first set our goals, we used the best information available at the time to develop a credible but stretching plan. It was intentionally ambitious, given the scale of the problem we were trying to tackle. For example, we didn’t just aim to reduce our use of virgin plastic, we wanted to halve it.

This has proved more challenging than any of us anticipated at the time. Assumptions made on the development of new technologies and infrastructure have simply not materialised as they are not fully in our control. For example, a gap remains between the ‘technical’ recyclability rate of our plastic packaging portfolio (72%) versus the ‘actual’ recyclability rate (53%). Designing our packaging for recycling is only the first step. There also need to be systems in place to recycle it, in practice and at scale. Finally, external factors, like the pandemic, also created significant headwinds.

We’ve learnt from all of this. We now have more knowledge and insights, which we’re already applying to update our approach. For instance, we have a better understanding of the challenges scaling alternative business models like refill stations. And we know now, more than ever, that cross-industry collaboration is essential.

While it’s disappointing to miss any target, we’re still confident that our goals were focused on the right, most important areas to tackle. Reducing virgin plastic, for example, remains the single most impactful way to prevent plastic pollution at source. That said, we now know that we need more time, bolder innovations and an acceleration in systemic changes.

How and why we’ve updated our goals

In line with Unilever’s wider refreshed sustainability agenda, we’re evolving our approach to be more focused in allocating our resources, more urgent in driving actions towards our long-term ambitions, and more systemic in our advocacy to address the enablers and blockers of progress outside our direct control.

We have updated our plastic goals to bring more focus and to double down on the key issues.

Reducing our use of virgin plastic and developing alternatives for hard-to-recycle flexible plastic packaging materials, like plastic sachets, are priorities.

Our new goals: stretching but more realistic

First, we aim to reduce our virgin plastic use by 30% in 2026, and by 40% in 2028. We’ve now set a clear, interim goal to help build on our progress, improve transparency and strengthen accountability. Here we’ll focus on increasing our use of recycled plastic, making our packaging lighter and scaling alternative formats, materials and business models.

Second, we will work to ensure that 100% of our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, by 2030 for rigid plastic, and by 2035 for flexibles. We have split rigid packaging from hard-to-recycle flexible packaging, in recognition of the unique challenges linked to each format and the different solutions required.

For rigid plastic, which forms around 70% of our plastics portfolio by weight, we’ve made good progress designing approximately 87% of our portfolio for recycling. We’ll now focus on the more challenging non-recyclable components such as caps, aerosol actuators and bottle pumps.

For hard-to-recycle flexibles, like sachets, we’re working on a range of solutions to reduce our use and replace them with alternative materials, formats and models. Compared to rigids, this will require more time, as we develop and scale new technologies. For instance, our world-class team of packaging experts, material scientists and digital modellers are developing next-generation flexible packaging materials.

Our third goal is to use 25% recycled plastic in our packaging by 2025. Our fourth is to collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell by 2025.

All these goals are fully integrated into our business groups’ targets and plans.

Why collaboration and government intervention are key

What we know for sure is we can’t do this alone. Voluntary goals and industry initiatives can only go so far, and too often they reduce the competitiveness of those taking action.

More interventions are needed across the entire plastics value chain. For instance, we cannot achieve our goal to make our plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable if the right infrastructure and rules aren’t also put in place.

We need stronger, harmonised regulations to get everyone on track to eliminate plastic waste and pollution, and to level the playing field for all businesses. That’s why we’re calling on governments to support industry in three key areas.

As co-chair of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, we’re advocating for a high-ambition outcome of a legally binding treaty that sets global, harmonised rules. Global action that covers the full life-cycle of plastic will help reduce complexity for businesses like ours, accelerate investment in proven solutions and create the systems-level change we need to scale new solutions. It will also help ensure all businesses play by the same rules.

We’re calling on governments to accelerate the implementation of mandatory and well-designed extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, which hold businesses to account for the packaging choices they make. They can help improve recycling systems – closing the gap between packaging that’s technically recyclable and is actually recycled – by ensuring money is invested back into waste management and packaging innovation. This in turn drives up recycling rates and the supply of recycled plastic.

And finally, we’re calling on governments to agree well-designed reuse policies, tailored to markets and categories. That includes setting harmonised standards, definitions, metrics and incentives to help create the right enabling environment for reuse and refill to scale, while encouraging pre-competitive collaboration to help industry players overcome shared barriers.

Ending plastic pollution remains a priority

We’re under no illusion about the scale of the challenge, but we believe we’re on the right path and need to continue the journey we’ve already started.

There’s a lot of work still to be done, but our focused approach – rooted in reduction, circulation and collaboration – will help deliver better short- and long-term outcomes, alongside more focused resource allocation and more systemic interventions.

Tackling this issue remains a priority for our business, and we’ll continue to work with others to end plastic pollution.

To read more about our updated commitments on plastics, climate, nature and livelihoods, visit our Sustainability Hub

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