Packaging plays a key role in protecting our products. But it can also end up as waste in landfill, dumping grounds or as litter. Increasing resource scarcity means it is more urgent than ever to be efficient with packaging and find solutions to deal with ‘post consumer waste’ – packaging and product thrown away after use by our consumers. This is particularly important in developing markets where infrastructure to manage packaging waste has not kept pace with the rapid rise in consumption.
Our approach is to reduce, reuse and recycle. There is a clear business case. By reducing packaging we can gain cost benefits in materials, energy and transport.
We define waste as any packaging which ends up in landfill, product left over in the packaging at the time of disposal and waste that results from our own manufacturing processes. We take a holistic approach to sustainable packaging, which means looking at reducing all these different types of waste.
More of our packaging is now recyclable or contains recycled material but we are finding that tackling post-consumer waste is more challenging.
We are continuing to work with others – from influencing government policy to learning from suppliers and waste service providers, as well as collaborating with other industry players on non-competitive priorities, such as developing new materials that can be easily recycled. We have initiated a number of pilots on materials which are usually considered more difficult to recycle at scale. We will collaborate with others across our value chain to develop new end-to-end solutions.
Reaching our targets
The targets we have set in our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan require us to take the following steps to continue to reduce our packaging and waste impact:
reduce the quantity of packaging we require for our products. We will adopt leading-edge design techniques and choose materials to minimise impacts
find more ways to enable our consumers to reuse product packaging, for example through the development of refill packs
work on increasing the use of recycled and renewable materials in our packaging as well as making our products as recyclable as possible. This will require us to work with others through advocacy and partnership to strengthen the recycling and recovery infrastructure in countries where we sell products
continue to reduce waste from our manufacturing process
tackle sachet waste in developing and emerging markets
eliminate particular materials of concern such as PVC.
While they are ambitious, we also recognise that these targets are a first step towards more sustainable packaging.
We have traditionally focused on reducing packaging material simply as a route to cutting costs. But our focus has changed. We are now focussed on developing innovation in lighter, stronger and better materials that have a lower environmental impact. We do this through our procurement and strategic materials capability teams collaborating with external partners.
We will continue to explore emerging technologies and ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approaches. This requires products to be designed so that resources are used in a cyclical way, meaning that materials can constantly flow round a ‘closed loop’ system, rather than being used once and then discarded. This remains an area for further development for us and the wider industry.
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 – a legal requirement for some products – and 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 across our foods and home and personal care portfolio 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 leads to less product waste during transportation and helps consumers use products efficiently.
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. 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.
While we are making good progress in reducing packaging, we cannot achieve our target to halve our waste unless recycling rates increase significantly.
We are involved in several interventions associated with recycling and recovery, such as the Metal Matters campaign in the UK. However this is an area where we have little control over the value chain and are reliant on working with others.
That is why we reviewed our internal position on packaging recycling and extended producer responsibility. We are working with our major markets to increase our capacity to engage with governments and other stakeholders to find the best policy solutions to drive up recycling rates, which may vary from country to country.
Although this is clearly a challenge, it is also an opportunity to inspire end-to-end solutions through collaboration on non-competitive priorities, not only within the supply chain, but also with our customers and our peer companies.
We have appointed an advocacy manager to encourage change in government waste and recycling policy and to engage in public debate about this issue. In 2013 we will appoint four packaging managers who as part of their job description will be working with local country teams to increase recycling by mapping local infrastructure and identifying appropriate interventions.