Cleaning up the planet

Developing long-term innovative solutions to reduce packaging

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What do big multinationals do to clean up the planet?

Eddie van Os is Unilever’s global packaging director for Strategic Materials. He’s based in Durban, and heads a team of subject matter experts scattered around the world, from China to Chicago. The role of Van Os and his team is to develop long-term innovative solutions to reduce packaging. They work with specialist suppliers to draw on the latest technologies which are then applied across Unilever’s product categories.

“We at Unilever have a clear vision,” says Van Os, “To double the size of the business whilst halving our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan lies at the heart of this vision and is central to what we do.”

The USLP sets quantified, time bound targets for each of our focus areas; greenhouse gases, water, waste and sustainable sourcing. Regarding waste, all packaging associated with Unilver’s products has to be designed for sustainability; in other words, reduce, reuse and recycle.

Van Os lists practical examples. “We measure waste by weight so the lighter, the less waste to landfill. Look at the detergent pouches which replaced our coated cartons. We redesigned the pack and reduced the weight thereby removing 4,457 tons of material from the waste stream annually.”

Another method of reducing weight is giving the consumer the same amount of product but in a concentrated pack. Comfort fabric softener is a good example. “A smaller, concentrated pack obviously weighs less.”

Reusing potential waste makes a big difference which is why consumers will see more and more Unilever brands available in refills. “Organics shampoo is a good example,” says Van Os, “The refill pack is lighter and creates less waste, as does your reusing your old shampoo bottle. It’s a double win.”

However Van Os acknowledges that empty pouches are generally considered not worth recycling because they are small and lightweight, therefore lacking in value. “Our ambition is to develop a viable business model for this waste which continues to provide the benefits of refills whilst tackling the environmental issues associated with their use.”

Van Os is determined to improve the recycling rate of packaging and hopes the action of his team acts as a catalyst to increase recycling rates in South Africa. A good example is the Sunlight dishwasher bottle which is one of the products where virgin PET plastic has been replaced with 50% recycled PET. This will hopefully drive the demand for PET plastic which will increase the collection of this material from households and landfills.

All Unilever packs carry material ID logos that help consumers identify the packaging material. This means that not only can you can chose to spend your money on recyclable material but you are also helped to separate your waste at home. “Plastics look very alike,” adds Van Os, “So the logos help consumers, collectors and recycling companies separate their waste.”

The work that Unilever is doing has a knock-on effect. As Van Os says, “We work with industry bodies to improve collection of post consumer waste. We have made a lot of noise and all our suppliers are aware of our waste ambitions and are happy to fall in line.

Nampak Flexibles for example, supplies an NGO with trim and production waste who in turn donate it to the Hillcrest Aids Centre to crochet and manufacture into bags. This means together we are cutting down on waste and creating employment. It may be small but it makes a difference. Everything makes a difference.”

Van Os is proud of the work he and his team are doing. “We hope other companies will follow; we want to see more waste collected and recycled and less waste to landfills. Zero waste to landfill is my ultimate ambition.”

Pick and Pay

Unilever and Pick n Pay have partnered to reduce their joint packaging footprint by 30% by 2015. The project started in 2010. At this point a baseline was taken – all the packaging brought in by Unilever was weighed (“The shrink wrap, the corrugated boxes, the point of sale display bins,” says Van Os) and then recycled. 

As time goes on more and more packaging is taken out of the waste stream. 

“By 2015 we need to take out about four thousand tones of packaging waste, he adds. Currently, at Pick n Pays throughout the country, not a gram of Unilever’s transport packaging goes to landfills. “It is all 100 percent recycled.”

Green Lever Publication - September 2013

Download the Green Lever Publication (PDF | 5MB) for September 2013.

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