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Unilever Calls for a Circular Economy in the Consumer Goods Industry

The company says treating plastic packaging as a valuable resource to be managed efficiently and effectively is a key priority in achieving its sustainable goals.

Unilever, a British-Dutch multinational consumer goods company co-headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and London, committed to ensuring that all of its plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. In fact, the company is calling on the entire fast-moving consumer goods industry to accelerate its progress towards the circular economy.

Unilever, which owns a wide range food and personal care brands including Dove, Lipton, Axe and Hellmann’s, supports a fully circular economy, rather than a disposable model.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), just 14 percent of the plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling facilities, while 40 percent ends up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems like rivers and oceans. By 2050, the foundation estimates there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans and new plastics will consume 20 percent of all oil production within 35 years, up from an estimated 5 percent today.

“Our plastic packaging plays a critical role in making our products appealing, safe and enjoyable for our consumers. Yet it is clear that if we want to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material, we need to do much more as an industry to help ensure it is managed responsibly and efficiently post-consumer use,” said Paul Polman, Unilever CEO in a press release.

The company says treating plastic packaging as a valuable resource to be managed efficiently and effectively is a key priority in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Sustainable Consumption & Production) and, in doing so, shifting away from a “take-make-dispose” model of consumption to one which is fully circular. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development were adopted by world leaders at a UN Summit in September 2015. 

To help transform global plastic packaging material flows, Unilever now has committed to ensuring that all of its plastic packaging is designed to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

The company also promises to renew its membership in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for another three years and endorse and support their New Plastics Economy initiative. The foundation, founded in 2010, with the goal of accelerating the transition to the circular economy rather than a linear one. As part of this, Unilever will publish the full “palette” of plastics materials used in its packaging by 2020 to help create a plastics protocol for the industry. Additionally, Unilever says it will prove and share with the industry a technical solution to recycle multi-layered sachets, particularly for coastal areas most at risk of plastics leaking into the ocean.

As part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, the company previously committed to reducing the weight of the packaging it uses this decade by one third by 2020, and increase its use of recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25 percent by 2025 against a 2015 baseline. In 2015, it achieved its commitment of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across its manufacturing operations.

“To address the challenge of ocean plastic waste we need to work on systemic solutions - ones which stop plastics entering our waterways in the first place,” said Polman. “We hope these commitments will encourage others in the industry to make collective progress towards ensuring that all of our plastic packaging is fully recyclable and recycled.”

Polman added that the industry also needs to work in partnership with governments and other stakeholders to support the development and scaling up of collection and reprocessing infrastructure, which is critical in the transition towards a circular economy.

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