Unilever to halve virgin plastic use by 2025: ‘The majority is in home care and personal care’

By Kacey Culliney contact

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever wants to slash 350,000 tonnes of its annual plastic footprint by 2025 (Getty Images)
Unilever wants to slash 350,000 tonnes of its annual plastic footprint by 2025 (Getty Images)

Related tags: Unilever, Plastic packaging, Personal care, Dove, Sustainability

Personal care major Unilever will slash use of virgin plastic in half by 2025, cutting use completely or using alternatives such as cardboard, bamboo and recycled materials.

This takes Unilever’s current commitment to ensure all its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 one step further.

The Dutch firm’s current plastic packaging footprint stands at around 700,000 tonnes annually and its goal is to reduce this in absolute terms by 100,000 tonnes, cutting plastic completely, and through alternatives by 250,000 tonnes.

Big beauty and personal care impact

Unilever’s largest division remains beauty and personal care, generating €5.5bn of its total €13.7bn revenues for the second-quarter of 2019​. And with core brands like Dove, TRESemmé, Rexona, Dermalogica and Signal operating across skin care, hair care, deodorants and oral health categories, impact would clearly be felt in this unit.

Speaking to CosmeticsDesign-Europe, Fleur van Bruggen, communications director at Unilever, said: “We are going to halve the amount of virgin plastic we use, but that’s across all packaging: home care, personal care and foods as well, and of course, the majority is in home care and personal care.”

Asked if such a transition would be difficult in personal care, Van Bruggen said: “I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult for personal care. Every category has its own challenges. For instance, if you look at shampoo, a glass bottle wouldn’t be the safest alternative, so you have to look at other alternatives.”

Unilever followed a ‘no, less, better’ plastic reduction strategy, she said, prioritising no plastic use wherever possible and opting for reduced use or replacement materials when necessary. It recently removed a thin layer of plastic from the interior of its Dove soap bar boxes, for example. 

“That sounds like a small step but because we sell many of those soap bars worldwide, the impact is quite big,” ​Van Bruggen said.“Basically, every single packaging product is being looked at and it’s being looked at from a ‘no, less or better’ plastic plan. This soap bar fortunately moved from a little bit of plastic on the inside of the cardboard box to none at all.”

Manufacturing bamboo toothbrushes was another step being taken in Unilever’s personal care unit, she said, as was the development of shampoo bars, cardboard deodorant sticks and refillable toothpaste tablets.

Considering the ‘total footprint’

Unilever would also invest in refill programs for some personal care products, Van Bruggen said, and potentially develop “super concentrated”​ variants to reduce overall packaging – work it had already completed in home care. However, she said the company was focused on looking beyond plastic packaging, considering its wider supply chain as well.

“What’s very important is we do continue to look at the total footprint of our packaging. It makes no sense if you substitute plastic with an alternative that leaves a bigger mark on the environment.”

Reducing total virgin plastic use by half sounded easy, Van Bruggen said, but it wasn’t because recycled plastic materials and alternatives were not yet widely and readily available at scale.

“We want to complete this by 2025 and that is quite a task,”​ she said. But, partnerships with waste collection and processing firms and participation in extended producer responsibility schemes, where Unilever directly payed for the collection of its packaging, would help build up supply.

Unilever said by 2025, it would help collect and process more packaging than it sold through such partnerships and wider investments.

Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, said: “Our plastic is our responsibility and so we are committed to collecting back more than we sell, as part of our drive towards a circular economy. This is a daunting but exciting task which will help drive global demand for recycled plastic.”

Unilever recently joined L’Oréal and other major brands in the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) business coalition​, launched at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit – set up to drive sustainable agriculture throughout global supply chains.

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