Unilever, one of the largest global consumer goods companies, says it plans to cut its use of non-recycled “virgin” plastics in half by 2025.
The London-based company — which makes name brands like Dove, Vaseline and Ben & Jerry's — also pledges to collect and process more used plastic packaging than it sells over the next six years.
Richard Slater, chief research and development officer at Unilever, says the company plans to use as much recycled plastic as possible and make its products fully recyclable — no small task for a company with over 400 brands sold in more than 190 countries.
The company hopes the switch will help customers make environmentally friendly choices without drastically changing their buying habits, he says.
“The onus is on us as consumer companies to innovate and come up with solutions that are great for people,” he says. “It will in some cases need a bit of behavior change and shift. But if we make it easy for people and bring people along, then I think we can we can affect the change.”
One product the company has worked to optimize is laundry detergent. The company wants to shift consumer habits to buying a smaller, more concentrated pack that lasts just as long.
The new formula for Seventh Generation laundry detergent uses half the amount of water and 60% less plastic than before, he says.
Unilever’s plastic initiative will also utilize Loop, a program where the company refills reusable packaging for consumers. The program is in the pilot stage, he says.
Called “the milkman of the 1950s, but with a 21st-century reboot” on its website, the company will pick up aluminum deodorant containers or facial cleanser bottles for regular refills, Slater says.
In theory, using a program like Loop could be even cheaper for consumers because the company saves money making the product with less water, plastic and transportation.
“My philosophy with all of this is we need to make it really easy and seamless for people,” Slater says. “I think we've got to offer fantastic solutions that are convenient at the right price.”
Recycling plastic isn’t as easy as it may seem — 79% of all plastic has ended up in a landfill or burned, but not repurposed into a new product.
By attempting to halve its use of nonrecycled plastics, Unilever has created a large demand for recycled material, he says. This demand helps make the business case for using recycled plastic.
Love Beauty and Planet beauty products, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise and Ben & Jerry’s are all brands manufactured in the U.S. that are moving toward 100% recycled plastic packaging, he says, which is creating local demand for recycled material.
China used to take the majority of plastic from the U.S. until 2017, but the material wasn’t recycled when it arrived. Though this change presented a challenging situation, it’s sparked investment in processing and collecting waste domestically, Slater says.
Unilever plans to form partnerships with waste collectors and processors in the U.S. and Europe, he says, as well as invest in developing markets like India, Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
“One of the whole intents of this is to make sure that plastic isn't seen as a commodity that can just be thrown away,” Slater says. “It's plastic waste. That's the issue here, not plastic. If we can keep plastic circular, then actually we keep the value in the system and we don't create that waste issue in the environment.”
The company’s goal is not to eliminate plastics from its products, he says, but rather keep plastic waste out of the environment and create a “circle” of reuse across the consumer goods industry. If companies were to replace plastic with glass or metal, that would come with a different set of adverse environmental impacts.
Consumer goods companies should collaborate on creating innovative technologies that can make a difference, Slater says.
Unilever co-invented technology that can repurpose black plastic, a material made from recycled electronic waste that’s difficult to recycle. The innovation is in the trials, he says.
“We'll share that with anybody out there,” he says, “to try and change the whole industry rather than simply changing Unilever.”
This segment aired on October 21, 2019.