Why Unilever Has Committed to 100% Recyclable Packaging

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Large brands often bear the brunt of the blame for plastic waste and pollution, and rightly so. Look at any news story about plastic pollution and you can see their handiwork — single-use plastic water bottles littering roadsides, grocery store bags tangled in trees, and oceans clogged with plastic tampon applicators, combs and other detritus.

Multinational corporations produce products on such a vast scale that it’s impossible not to assign them some of the blame for the polluted state of our environment — but the size and scale of their production lines can actually work for them when it comes to making positive environmental change.

In recent years, many brands have heeded pressure from their customers to reduce the environmental impact of their products. Unilever, the massive corporation behind popular brands like Dove, Axe and Kellogg’s, is the latest to jump aboard.

In a statement released earlier this year, Unilever revealed its pledge to use only 100 percent recyclable packaging in all of its products by the year 2025.

Unilever goes on to detail its commitment by saying that it will:

  • Ensure all of its plastic packaging is designed to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025
  • Renew its membership in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (a charity working toward the goal of a circular economy) for another three years and endorse and support their New Plastics Economy initiative
  • Publish the full “palette” of plastics materials used in its packaging by 2020 to help create a plastics protocol for the industry
  • Invest in proving, and then sharing with the industry, a technical solution to recycle multilayered sachets, particularly for coastal areas, which are most at risk of plastics leaking into the ocean

Typically when companies pledge to take responsibility for how their products can be disposed or recycled, they ignore the other end of the equation — how much is being produced in the first place. But, to their credit, Unilever seems to be taking small steps toward addressing this issue, too, having committed to reduce the weight of the packaging it uses this decade by one-third within the next few years. The company also plans to bump up the use of recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25 percent from 2015 to 2025.

As goals go, Unilever’s commitment to increasing the recyclability of its packaging is a good one. It’s specific, measurable and has a clearly defined due date. But they do leave themselves a bit of an out.

Hidden toward the end of the press release is this sentence: “Unilever will ensure that by 2025, it is technically possible for its plastic packaging to be reused or recycled and there are established, proven examples of it being commercially viable for plastics reprocessors to recycle the material.”

This part is a bit tricky — Unilever is basically saying that it will make sure that it’s possible to recycle every part of its packaging, even if doing so is uncommon and facilities with the ability to do so are not yet in widespread use. So while they aren’t going so far as guaranteeing that every single one of their brand’s packages — from Lipton soup to Noxzema bottles — will be welcomed in your city’s recycling program by 2025, it’ll at least be “technically possible” for them to be recycled, somewhere, by someone.

All told, it’s a step in the right direction. A big one. And I think Paul Polman, Unilever CEO, summed it up best with this comment:

“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. 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.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Feature photo courtesy of Casper1774 Studio / Shutterstock.com

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Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.