Unilever’s HDPE plan

Unilever’s Emma Peacock speaks to Waste Management Review about overcoming the challenges in meeting its target of 25 per cent recycled HDPE in its locally made home and personal care products by 2019.

The push towards global sustainability and increased product stewardship among large multinationals took a great leap forward in recent months. In July, McDonald’s Australia announced plans to phase out plastic straws by 2020 and internationally, Starbucks revealed its bid to commercialise a compostable cup.

The Australian subsidiary of multinational consumer goods company Unilever also continued its ambitious sustainability commitments with the announcement in July that it would introduce 25 per cent locally recycled HDPE plastic into the bottle of its home and personal care brands, including Dove, OMO, Surf, Sunsilk and Tresemme. 

The company, which produces food and drink, home care and personal care household names such as Jif, Lipton, Lux, Lynx and Continental, announced this year it was on track to meet 80 per cent of its “Sustainable Living Commitments”. The plan comprises 100 per cent recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025 in line with the meeting of environment ministers state and territory targets, along with a range of other commitments in energy efficiencies.

The company’s sustainability strategy was bolstered by its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), developed in 2010, which remains at the heart of its business model.  

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Waste Management Review spoke to Emma Peacock, Unilever’s ANZ Head of Sustainable Business and Communications, to find out how the company plans to achieve its targets, including where it sources its materials, its overall landfill diversion strategy and its contribution to building Australia’s circular economy. 

Emma explains that when Unilever launched the USLP, the company was unsure of how it would achieve some of the complex and challenging targets it had set out. She says that since then, the organisation has made considerable investments and improvements across its supply chain.

“One of the big challenges we and the rest of the industry face is ensuring packaging which is recyclable is actually recycled rather than sent to landfill. Globally, just 14 per cent of plastic packaging is recycled, while in Australia that figure is around 31 per cent.”

She says that Unilever is confident it will achieve its target of 25 per cent recycled HDPE in its locally made home and personal care products by 2019. 

“This move will create an end market for 750 tonnes of HDPE plastic each year – equivalent to more than 100 million single-use plastic bags, or more than 200,000 yellow bins full of plastic bottles. Additionally, we will be looking to source more recycled PET moving forward,” she says.

“We see 25 per cent post-consumer recycled as the minimum, and we will continue to push for more where possible. Technical and economic barriers to incorporating a higher percentage of post-consumer recycled plastic persist, and we have had to work very hard to get this far, however we will continue to drive progress towards a truly circular model of consumption.”

Emma says that in addition to recent announcements, Unilever has engaged in a number of waste reduction initiatives in recent years across its manufacturing processes.

“For us, the business case is clear. Reducing waste creates efficiencies and lowers costs while reusing and recycling materials extends their life, allowing us to repurpose valuable materials that would otherwise have been wasted. The more we can operate in a circular way, the more value we can create for our company and for others.”

Emma says that at a global level, Unilever uses a materiality analysis to ensure the USLP reports on the most important and pressing issues faced by its business and stakeholders. A materiality analysis involves identifying economic, environmental and social issues which may impact a company’s business performance. 

“We reassess every two years to ensure it reflects changes in our business and the external environment.

“Our most recent materiality assessment, conducted in 2017, was designed to identify what the USLP should look like beyond 2020. We identified 177 sustainability topics and categorised them into 24 distinct issues. These issues were then prioritised based on their potential to positively or negatively impact on growth, cost, risk and trust, and on their importance to key stakeholders.”

She says Unilever also believes it is important to extensively consult with internal and key external stakeholders on the future of the USLP, and the company recently conducted its biggest ever listening exercise about the future of Unilever’s sustainable strategy. 

“We are looking forward to sharing more about the learnings and outcomes from this in 2019,” she says. 

“Progress towards a circular economy in Australia will largely need to be driven by the manufacturing sector and it is critical that we create a local market and demand for post-consumer recycled plastic. 

“We cannot simply join a circular economy before there is a technically and economically feasible model to recycle and reuse materials.”

Incorporating recycled content in its packaging is a difficult undertaking and Emma says the challenges of that include that the supply routes for the volume of high quality post-consumer recycled HDPE needed by its major brands has not always been readily available to the company in Australia. She adds that secondly, post-consumer recycled plastic continues to be sold at a premium compared to virgin plastic, which poses a significant economic barrier to manufacturers.

“Finally, recycled content can interact with certain products in a different manner to virgin plastic. 

“The integrity and stability of the packaging is of course its main function, while manufacturers also need to ensure it doesn’t negatively impact the aesthetics of the product,” Emma says. 

“Each of these barriers are not impossible to overcome, but they do require effort, investment and collective action from all players involved.”