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Unilever and the Plastic Soup

London/Rotterdam, 14 January 2017 – Unilever has committed to ensuring that all its packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. It’s an important step in the battle against the plastic soup, because it means that – in theory – no plastic Unilever packaging will have to end up in the ocean.

The approach of the globally operating multinational is a combination of technological adjustments and system solutions. Paul Polman, Unilever CEO: “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.” Read the full Unilever press release here.

But what does Polman mean by ‘systemic solutions’?

In poor countries minimal quantities of products (detergent, shampoo, etc.) are packaged and sold separately. These small packages, which consist of several layers of plastic foil, are left everywhere after use. They easily wash into the ocean via the sewer and rivers. Unilever says it will invest in a technological solution that makes it possible to recycle these complicated packages (pouches, sachets) and has promised to share this knowledge with other companies.

However, Unilever doesn’t add that all these tiny packages still won’t be recycled when such a technique has been developed. That’s because mini packages represent no worth whatsoever. No waste-picker will see a profit in it. The ability to recycle plastic packaging therefore doesn’t mean they won’t end up in the environment. In this example the only ‘systemic solution’ is to stop offering products in mini packaging altogether.

The uncomfortable truth is that as long as Unilever’s sales model based on mini packaging isn’t revised, mini packages will contribute greatly to the plastic soup.

Maria Westerbos, Plastic Soup Foundation CEO: “We would like to see Unilever set concrete goals to prevent plastic packaging spilling into the environment, because it will have to be cut off at the source. So stop selling single-use package that only allow you to wash your hair once, but instead chose to wash in clean water, without producing any waste”.


Photo: mini packaging in a store in India