When Hindustan Unilever (HUL) decided to put a curve on its best-selling Pond’s talc pack some time back, its patrons may have assumed the move was aimed at breaking the monotony of the cylindrical shape used for decades. While breaking the boredom was one of the reasons, the slight curve at the belly of Pond’s talc packs allowed the consumer goods giant to save one-third of the plastic that goes into each pack.
More recently, its distributors found that HUL had removed the plastic packaging layer inside the cartons of the best-selling Dove soaps. Dove soap packs now lay naked inside the carton boxes. The move has helped the local arm of the British-Dutch multinational cut down on single-use plastic.
While these measures started some time ago, HUL’s parent company, Unilever, has now launched a concerted effort to curb its use of plastic globally. As the voices against plastic waste get louder, the company aims to cut the use of virgin plastic by half by 2025. It also wants to collect and process more plastic packs than it can consume in seven years.
Unilever is tying up with plastic collectors and recyclers in all developed countries and in large developing markets like India. Through them, it has committed itself to collect and processing around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually.
However, at the heart of Unilever’s bold commitment lies its design efficiency. Out of the 700,000 tonnes of plastic it consumes annually, it hopes to slash 100,000 tonnes by changing the design and packaging of its products.
According to Alan Jope, chief executive officer, Unilever, the design is the starting point of its project. “Reducing the amount of plastic we use and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources is the goal. We are also committed to ensuring all our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable. This demands a fundamental rethink in our approach to our packaging and products. It requires us to introduce new and innovative packaging materials and scale up new business models, like reuse and refill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity,” said Jope.
Globally, the firm has reduced its plastic waste by a third since 2010. According to the company, through its ‘Less Plastic’ initiative, Unilever has explored new ways of packaging and delivering products — including concentrates, such as its new Cif eco refill, which eliminates 75 per cent of plastic.
It has been launching ‘refill stations’ for shampoo and laundry detergent across shops, universities and mobile vending outlets in Southeast Asia.
In addition to the ‘Less Plastic’ campaign, there is a ‘No Plastic’ project under which Unilever has brought innovations to the market that include shampoo bars, refillable toothpaste tablets, cardboard deodorant sticks, and bamboo toothbrushes.
It has also signed up to the Loop platform, which is exploring new ways of delivering and collecting reusable products from consumers’ homes. According to Ellen MacArthur, founder, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Unilever is already running projects that involve eliminating unnecessary packaging through innovations such as refill, reuse, and concentrates. “These measures are increasing their use of recycled plastic,” she said.
The foundation works with business and schools to accelerate the transition to a circular economy (this means keeping plastics circulating constantly around a closed-loop system rather than being used once and discarded or leaked into nature) primarily through waste management.
In India, apart from introducing innovative packaging solutions and changes in design, HUL has launched pilot projects in 20 cities, including New Delhi, Bengaluru, and Kolkata. Through its partnerships with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), it runs a project in Maharashtra that educates and mobilises children at more than 1,000 schools to reduce plastic pollution.
“Segregation and collection of plastic waste, together with building the recycling industry, are critical aspects of a sustainable solution. We have made an ambitious commitment and we believe it is a right step towards our vision of a world where no plastic packaging ends up polluting the environment,” said Sanjiv Mehta, chairman & managing director, HUL.
In 2018, HUL has collected, segregated and safely disposed of more than 20,000 tonnes of plastic laminate waste in partnership with NGOs and start-ups in more than 20 cities across India. The Mumbai-based firm plans to scale it up further to cover more cities. HUL is working with the government and is tying up with the United Nations Development Programme for end-to-end pilot projects for plastic waste management.
War on plastic: What other firms are doing
100,000 tonnes Reduction in use by design and packaging innovations
600,000 tonnes Plastic waste to be collected and recycled annually
100% Packaging that is reusable, recyclable, or compostable over the next decade
5 million children and teachers in 20,000 schools to be made aware; over 35,000 waste management workers involved
20 million kilos Plastic waste collected, processed and recycled by March 2021
25% Cut in single-use plastic since August; to consume only recycled plastics from 2021
0 Single-use plastic in packaging from June 2020