Tackling sachet waste

We sell many millions of products in single-use sachets, particularly in developing and emerging markets, which can end up as litter.

An opportunity and a challenge

Single-use sachets make our brands affordable to people on low incomes. They provide consumers with the option to buy small quantities of quality products when they need them – a particularly valuable resource in developing economies. They are also an efficient use of packaging, creating less waste by weight per millilitre of product sold than bottles. However, in the developing markets where sachets are most popular, infrastructure for recycling or disposal is often limited, and the sort of ‘flexible waste’ that discarded sachets represent can be an eyesore and a potential long-term environmental nuisance.

Two factors affect the reduction of environmental impacts created by post-consumer sachets and flexible packaging. First, the format does not possess sufficient economic value to allow for collection and recycling. Secondly, waste management infrastructure in developing and emerging countries is either poor or inadequate. Both factors contribute to the litter problem caused by sachets and add to the burden for landfill sites. It is within this context that we aim to achieve our Sustainable Living Plan target.

If we can help create a value for this waste product, there is an incentive for people to collect it. The material and energy contained in sachet packaging can be recovered, either through incineration or through conversion to fossil fuel substitutes. As well as an obvious environmental benefit, this route offers potential social and economic benefits, too, through job creation and alternative sources of income for poor communities. We have a global task force working to reduce sachet waste through technology and education – and possibly by helping to create a whole new market for reuse.

We have set our engineers the task of designing and making sachets that use less material and, wherever possible, material with the lowest environmental impact.

Our approach is to:

  • implement design improvements to create sachets that use less material or material with less environmental impact

  • support litter awareness programmes

  • work  with others to explore economic models which create incentives for collection and reuse of our packaging.

Targets & performance

Tackle sachet waste

  • Our goal is to develop and implement a sustainable business model for handling our sachet waste streams by 2015.
  • We are investigating the potential of a new technology to find uses for sachet waste. We believe this will generate higher value returns for sachet waste, thereby helping us to build a stronger business case, which for the moment remains a challenge.
  • achieved
  • on-plan
  • off-plan
  • %of target achieved

Our perspective

Empty sachets are generally considered not worth collecting because they are small and lightweight so they lack value. Our ambition is to develop a viable business model for sachet waste which continues to provide the price and convenience benefits of sachets to low-income consumers while tackling the environmental issues associated with their use, such as litter and lack of recyclability.

In our 2011 Progress Report we shared the results of our trials using pyrolysis – the recovery of energy from sachet waste. We proved that the resulting fuel was of high enough quality for our Hindustan Unilever factory. To make the oil useable and profitable we have been working with our supplier in India to set up a distillation column. Scale-up is proving a challenge and we continue to seek solutions to take this technology forward.

In 2012, we identified a new technology which we believe is the next generation to pyrolysis. Small-scale trials have shown a high yield and superior quality end product. We are currently in negotiations with the developer and other value chain partners with the aim of commissioning the first commercial plant in Indonesia during 2013.

More on pyrolysis

Pyrolysis turns sachet material into fuel and recovers up to 60% of its embedded energy. In 2009 we conducted a study in Asia that confirmed that pyrolysis could offer an effective technological approach to dealing with sachet waste, recovering much of the energy used in the manufacture of the material and offering a practical solution to the problem of sachet litter. In 2010 we conducted assessments of various waste to energy options to determine commercial viability and concluded that pyrolysis was the most promising option.

Our pyrolysis pilot project provided encouraging results. We demonstrated ‘technical proof of principle’ of turning sachets, pouches and other flexible plastic waste into fuel oil at a viable cost. The plastic is put through a reactor where it turns first into a molten state and then a vapour. It is then condensed and stored in tanks and used as a fuel oil. Our Hindustan Unilever factory in Pondicherry, India, has successfully used the fuel extracted to power its plant.

One of the biggest barriers to turning pyrolysis or next generation technology into a business opportunity for reprocesses is taking collection of sachet waste to scale. We have engaged NGOs in India to assist us and we plan to test different approaches in 2013.

We are exploring how to incentivise sachet collection on a large scale. This will require us to work in partnership with other users of flexible plastic waste as well as with municipal authorities and those representing collectors of recyclable waste to develop an economically viable, effective and sustainable solution.