Our Waste & Packaging Strategy

Concern is growing about the packaging used for consumer products, both in terms of the resources used to make it and its contribution to waste.

Our approach

Packaging plays a key role in protecting our products. However, it can also end up as waste in landfill or as litter. Increasing focus on resource scarcity means that more attention is now being given to extracting economic worth from discarded packaging. Waste is increasingly becoming the new resource... it has value!

We have set ourselves an ambitious goal to halve the waste associated with our products by 2020. Furthermore, all our manufacturing sites will send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill by 2015. Our overall approach is to reduce, reuse and recycle.

We are making good progress. We have cut our total footprint of post-consumer waste associated with our packaging by 11% since 2010. Efficient pack designs and innovative use of materials, as well as the disposal of sauce brands with large waste footprints, have been the main drivers. Three quarters of our manufacturing sites now send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill, up from half our sites in 2012.

Our investment in cutting-edge design techniques and breakthrough materials is a key factor in our continuous progress to cut the amount of packaging materials we use. These include:

  • Rolling out bi-modal resins to lightweight our skin care and hair care bottles
  • Designing for optimal use of material across our global Lux portfolio
  • New compressed aerosols for Sure, Dove and Vaseline deodorants which require smaller cans
  • Materials which reduce the thickness of our ice cream wrappers, such as Twister and Paddle Pop
  • Cutting the number of layers and thickness of our affordable sachets for Sunsilk shampoo and other brands
  • Working closely with external-technology experts Mucell and Alpla to commercialise Mucell technology which allows us to inject gas while blow-moulding bottles.

Three years into our Plan, many of our brands have reduced the amount of materials they use, cutting material, energy and transport costs. Our team of material capability experts is also working closely with suppliers to develop innovative solutions focused on reducing packaging.

Despite this progress, we still face considerable challenges if we are to meet our target of halving our waste per consumer use by 2020. These include the development and implementation of new technologies, especially when this requires a significant shift in consumer behaviour. We also face considerable challenges in establishing improved levels of recycling and finding a viable business model to address the issue of sachet waste.

That is why we have reviewed our approach. We have decided to put a new focus on designing for a circular economy. This 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. We will also put more emphasis on identifying breakthrough materials, designing for recyclability and stimulating the development of more advanced recycling infrastructure.

Our new strategy tackles waste in five key ways:

  • Designing for the circular economy by designing for disassembly, reuse and recyclability and increasing the use of recycled and renewable materials.
  • Developing breakthrough technologies to help us reduce the materials that we use and find disruptive solutions for materials which are difficult to tackle, such as sachets or post-consumer recyclate suitable for use as food packaging.
  • Stimulating recycling and recovery by working with partners, including governments, NGOs, reprocessors and other downstream partners to develop infrastructure on specific materials which are important to our business.
  • Developing solutions for major materials, focusing first on a sustainable business model for sachet waste in developing and emerging markets.
  • Tackling end-to-end food waste by building success stories on how to combat food waste end-to-end, working with partners and sharing best practice.

We cannot do this alone. We continue to work with others – from influencing government policy to learning from academia, specialist suppliers and waste service providers. In 2014 we were proud to become a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which is seeking to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

We collaborate with other industry players on non-competitive priorities, such as on recycling infrastructure in markets which currently lag behind more developed markets. We have initiated a number of pilots on materials which are usually considered more difficult to recycle at scale. These are focused on developing viable collection models and developing technology. We will continue to collaborate with others across our value chain to develop new circular economy solutions.

Future challenges

Reducing the weight of our packaging material cuts costs and minimises the resources we use. However, it is only part of the bigger value-chain picture. Increasing recycling rates is also important.

We have started the journey, firstly by ensuring that more of our packs are recyclable. We have also started programmes to develop innovative solutions for those that aren’t.

Secondly we are including more recycled content in our plastic bottles, specifically HDPE and PET bottles. For example we increased the recycled content in our Sunlight dishwashing liquid to 50% in South Africa in 2013. Significant challenges remain in using recycled content, such as legislation on food contact, availability of high-quality waste materials, and creating a viable business case.

Thirdly, we are working closely with others to facilitate the development of recycling infrastructure - which varies from country to country. In 2013 we appointed two packaging managers who, as part of their role, are working with local country teams to increase recycling, by mapping local infrastructure and identifying appropriate interventions. We are involved in several interventions associated with recycling and recovery, such as the MetalMatters campaign in the UK, and the CEMPRE cooperative initiative in Brazil. However this is an area where we have little control over the value chain and are reliant on collaborating with others.

These are clearly challenges; however they also offer opportunities to inspire end-to-end solutions which protect our dwindling natural resources.

What is the purpose of packaging?

Packaging serves many purposes. It protects products, keeping them safe from contamination and therefore waste. It allows us to display vital information about how to use and dispose of goods safely – a legal requirement for some products. It allows us to communicate product benefits in a way that is appealing to our consumers. Packaging also provides functionality benefits, for example making it easy to dispense a product, or to reseal it after use, to ensure that the product is protected over its entire shelf-life.

Packaging also offers convenience and portion control to match the needs of different consumers. In Europe, demographic changes such as more single-person households, mean there is growing demand for smaller portions. 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 consumers on low incomes.

Good packaging design is essential, as it leads to less product waste during transportation and helps consumers to use products efficiently.

Defining a common packaging language

As part of the sustainability programme of the Consumer Goods Forum, a joint industry group developed a document called ‘Global language for packaging and sustainability – a framework and a measurement system for our industry’. This document enables more efficient dialogue with companies along the value chain on ways to reduce the environmental impact of packaging, while preserving its many important functions. A glossary of commonly used sustainability terms was also published in 2012.

Building on this work, in 2013, selected members of the Consumer Goods Forum started a project which aims to develop a systematic approach to evaluating the current state of packaging waste management systems in developing and emerging markets.

Business benefits from reduced packaging

Governments and campaigning organisations are increasingly alert to what they see as unnecessary packaging. This has led to commitments by some leading retailers to reduce the packaging of the products they sell and the materials used in transporting them. Some consumers are also increasingly choosing products with less packaging.

Packaging improvements can bring immediate business benefits. The more we reduce our packaging, the greater the potential saving in costs for materials, energy, transport and disposal for us, our customers and our consumers.

Designing for the circular economy

Circular economy thinking is challenging our current approach to design. We want to move away from the current linear ‘cradle to grave’ model to a circular model which eliminates waste by design. This 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.

The potential business benefits are considerable: new sources of value for customers and consumers; better raw materials risk management in an environment of increasing price volatility; lower waste management costs through higher-end applications for waste; and improved or different approaches to the supply chain.

New materials, modular packaging, design for disassembly and reassembly, eliminating mixed materials, wider use of refills and using post-consumer recycled waste are all part of the solution.

In January 2014 Unilever became a Global Partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which seeks to accelerate the shift to a circular economy. We are in the early stages of planning how we will work together to embed the circular economy mindset into our ways of working with R&D, supply chain and packaging design managers. We will share more when we have a plan in place.

Our approach to policy

Packaging has important benefits, but also poses environmental challenges, particularly in developing and emerging markets where the infrastructure for dealing with waste is generally less developed. We have ambitious targets to reduce the impact of our packaging waste on the environment, including reducing weight, making our packaging more recyclable and using more recycled materials ourselves. The infrastructure for dealing with post-consumer waste varies hugely between countries. To meet our targets, recycling rates in some of our markets must double or even treble.

We share a responsibility with our consumers, and with other players in the supply chain, to minimise packaging waste as far as possible, so we are seeking opportunities to contribute our ideas, expertise and resources to shaping initiatives and policies to have the best chance of long-term success. To meet the challenge we need to work with governments, NGOs, retailers, the waste sector and other brand owners either to help build effective infrastructure where it does not exist, or to develop programmes to increase consumer education and stimulate further use of existing recycling infrastructure.

An increasing number of national, sub-national and local governments are taking action in the name of tackling the environmental impacts of packaging waste. Some of these actions, such as eco-taxes or bans on particular packaging formats, are unlikely to result in higher recycling and recovery rates, but will entail significant costs to businesses. Others have the potential to deliver higher recycling and recovery rates in a cost-effective way.

These may be policies that will result in formal extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, or voluntary agreements in which industry will partner with, and support, the informal recycling sector, to increase its efficiency and income, as well as the welfare of those who work in the sector.

Unilever will evaluate individual initiatives and policies on their own merits, including their appropriateness to a country’s context. Where a formal EPR scheme is proposed, and is appropriate to a country’s context, Unilever’s support for it will be conditional on it meeting a set of key criteria, including being environmentally effective, cost-efficient, taking an integrated, shared approach and avoiding barriers to trade.

Working with others to address food waste

Since launching our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, the opportunity of tackling food waste has risen up the agenda.

In 2013, we worked with a range of partners to better understand the barriers, triggers and motivators to recycling through a social experiment, the ‘Sustain Ability Challenge’. Twelve families across the UK took part in the food waste challenge and on average reduced their household waste by almost one third (31%) and their weekly grocery bills by 14%.

We partnered with WRAP on this initiative, sharing tools with the families from their Love Food Hate Waste campaign. We identified a number of key learnings, such as the value of personal benefits, creating a shared purpose and the wider benefits associated with sustainable living. These findings will be applied to future efforts on motivating consumers to dispose of unavoidable food waste responsibly.

We worked with Recyclebank (now Green Redeem) in the UK to develop a co-ordinated social media campaign that used rewards, games and films to educate consumers on the disposal of tea bag waste, in a fun and interactive way. The campaign led to a reported 24% increase in people recycling their teabags after the online PG tips activity.

Focusing our efforts

Food waste is increasingly becoming a concern for stakeholders in the value chain and is an opportunity to cut costs and create economic benefits for farmers. We have created a strategy to tackle food waste in which we will build success stories on how to combat food waste end-to-end, working with strategically selected partnerships and sharing best practice with others.

Our focus will be on tomatoes, as a material food waste in our supply chain, and on cassava where waste is prevalent. We have opportunities for learning in the following countries:

  • Tomatoes in agricultural production, post-harvest and storage in India and China; and in product leftovers and consumer waste in the US
  • Cassava in agricultural production, post-harvest and storage in Nigeria.

New mobile app helps cut food waste

Up to 2 billion tonnes of food produced around the world never makes it onto a plate. Unilever Food Solutions (UFS) in the UK is challenging chefs and caterers to cut their food waste by at least 5% over their chosen time period – and see how much money they can save in the process.

In 2013 UFS launched the Wise Up on Waste app, an industry-first mobile app that allows chefs to track food waste. The app highlights the average volume of each type of waste (spoilage, preparation or customer plate waste), generated per ‘day part’ (ie breakfast, lunch and dinner), per day and per cover. It shows performance against the industry average, giving week-by-week comparisons to help identify the indicative cost savings for a business. It also contains case study videos, waste action tips, recipes and spoilage prevention advice.

Download the app
http://www.unileverfoodsolutions.co.uk/(Link opens in a new window)