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Progress on Plastics

Unilever’s announcement this fall that it would reduce its use of virgin plastic packaging by 50% by 2025 was rightly trumpeted as an important step. Unilever plans to reduce its overall volume of plastic packaging by nearly 15%, achieving the balance of its goal by using recycled instead of new plastic. This gives Unilever 6 years to reduce 700,000 tons of virgin plastic per year to 350,000 tons. As part of its commitment, Unilever also plans to collect and recycle more than 600,000 tons of plastic annually.

In response, Greenpeace’s Global Plastics Project Leader, Graham Forbes, called Unilever “one of the first global companies taking this challenge seriously.” At the same time, Forbes also called on Unilever to follow through with clear disclosures and specific investments in alternatives. In the past, Greenpeace has called out Unilever and other fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies for inadequate commitments on plastic, criticizing recycling efforts in particular as inadequate “greenwashing.” But Unilever’s new commitment to use major amounts of recycled plastic–rather than simply producing it–could help the plastic recycling industry scale.

Unilever is not alone in making this kind of commitment. In April, Procter & Gamble made a similar announcement with a slightly longer timeline, pledging to reduce their use of virgin petroleum plastic in packaging 50% by 2030. Procter & Gamble estimates that their strategy, which includes light weighting, significantly increasing their use of recycled plastic, converting more products to concentrated forms, and in some cases alternative packaging, will cut their use of virgin plastic by 300,000 tons.

But not every major FMCG company has followed suit. While Pepsico has committed to a 35% reduction in virgin plastic across its beverage portfolio by 2025, it is also a significantly larger generator of plastic, and the commitment does not apply across all its product lines. Coca Cola, the world’s largest generator of plastic packaging at 3,000,000 tons, does not have a commitment in place to reduce its use of virgin plastic. And rounding out the list of the top 4 sources of global plastic pollution (according to the wide-ranging brand audits performed by the Break Free From Plastic campaign), neither do Nestle or Danone.

While most of the top FMCGs do have commitments in place to stop producing non-recyclable plastics over the next several years, Greenpeace’s September report on plastic waste makes clear this is not enough, given that “plastic is far more likely to end up in landfills, incinerators or in the environment than to be recycled.” The report points out that just 9% of plastic produced in the US in 2015 (the last year for which data is available) was recycled, while the amount actually recycled domestically–rather than sent to lower income countries where its fate is often unknown–is likely as low as 2%. Greenpeace’s report additionally points out that packaging alternatives like paper and “bioplastics”–solutions touted by Coca Cola, Nestle, Danone and others–come with their own significant environmental impacts.

But the recent commitments from Unilever and Procter and Gamble could begin a new chapter in the fight to reduce plastic waste. When multinational companies commit to using previously recycled materials, the financial incentives to produce recycled materials grow significantly. This year, top plastic polluters Coca-Cola and PepsiCo withdrew from membership to the Plastics Industry Association over disagreements on plastic bag bans, which the association opposes. And with virtually all of the largest FMCGs pledging to at least research refillable and reusable packaging solutions–Greenpeace’s preferred long-term solution–there is hope that corporations could play a leading role in a new way of doing business.

As Unilever put it when rolling out their new commitment: “If even one of our bottles ends up in the environment, that’s one too many. Our plastic is our responsibility.” This admission of responsibility, if taken seriously and carried through by major FMCGs, could turn the tide on plastic waste.