The flow of plastic into the environment must be stopped before it’s too late, and a legally-binding global UN treaty backed by business is key to making this happen, writes Unilever’s Richard Slater

Consumer goods companies – including Unilever – are big users of plastic. From ice cream to shampoo, much of what we sell comes packaged in plastic. And over the last decade serious demands have been made of us to deal with the problem of plastic waste. Not only is this the right thing to do; it also drives innovation and reflects changing consumer preferences. More than 80 per cent of people worldwide favour products with less plastic packaging, according to an IPSOS poll published last week. Businesses like ours have a key role in driving innovations to reduce the use of new ‘virgin’ plastic and to make our products more recyclable.

At Unilever we’ve pledged to halve our use of virgin plastic by 2025. We will also remove over 100,000 tonnes of plastic altogether from our packaging – equivalent to the weight of more than 8,000 double-decker buses. And we will ensure that our plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable. While this isn’t without challenges, I see our ambitions as an opportunity to fuel innovation, create meaningful partnerships and, ultimately, grow our business by creating better, more sustainable products.

We’ve made progress on our commitments by using more post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic than ever before and scaling more reuse and refill models. But despite ambitious goals, innovation and significant investment by many companies like ours, we haven’t yet turned the tide. The problem is actually getting worse. At the current rate, there will be four times as much plastic in the ocean by 2040 as in 2016.

So far, our collective response to a worldwide problem has been too narrowly focused and fragmented. Voluntary agreements have put the wheels of change in motion across many countries, but the existence of different schemes can complicate and slow things down. We need a common framework that recognises the true scale of the issue, and the global nature of complex value chains.

That’s why this week’s United Nations Environment Assembly is a critical turning point. After intensive discussions, governments around the world yesterday reached a landmark decision to form a legally binding treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastic.

With an ambition to conclude negotiations by the end of 2024, the hard work starts now to put in a place a robust plan to deal with plastic pollution. Businesses like ours can and must lean in to support the process and ensure that the treaty addresses two major roadblocks we’re facing: reduction and recycling.

On reduction, we want to innovate to use less plastic in our packaging, shifting to reuse and refill formats, as well as alternative materials such as paper, aluminium and plant based. Then, where this is not possible due to the nature of the product, we are seeking to replace virgin plastic with PCR plastic – which also directly helps tackle plastic pollution by supporting the business model to collect and process plastic.

We are making progress with this. Dove, our biggest brand, has just launched a new reusable body wash in the US with a bottle that you buy once and refill, which is showing early signs of success with consumers. In Latin America, our dilute-at-home laundry detergent uses 70 per cent less plastic than our traditional bottles and is so popular that a third of consumers have already made the switch. We’ve launched 28 refill pilots around the world, delivering product refills straight to people’s homes from Latin America to Southeast Asia with start-ups like Algramo. We now need to test, learn and scale up these solutions globally, fast. 

Redesigning packs requires cutting-edge science, technology and innovation. Crucially, the sustainable choice must be the most appealing option to consumers: easily accessible, cost effective and efficient.

A Treaty that reduces virgin plastic production and use will create the right conditions to accelerate growth in new business models, formats – and help level the playing field on PCR material availability and cost. It will support companies like ours to pioneer new packaging innovations, and coordinate investment and infrastructure development, through clear national targets and roadmaps.

The second roadblock a Treaty must address is recycling.

Redesigning product packaging to drive recyclability is a priority at Unilever. However, there is a critical gap between what can be recycled and what is actually recycled within waste management systems. About 70 per cent of Unilever’s packaging around the world is technically recyclable, yet only half of the plastic we use is recyclable in practice. The same is true for most other consumer goods companies.

In many countries this simply comes down to the lack of recycling infrastructure available. A Treaty that sets legally binding targets will unlock the crucial investment needed to manage and process plastic effectively. Tonnes of plastic ending up as waste would be captured to be recycled and reused, in turn cutting down on the need for virgin plastic to be produced. We need new laws to stimulate investment in infrastructure, bring in mandatory recycling targets, and set up incentives for business to deliver the systems changes needed to end plastic pollution.

I often get asked why we can’t just stop using plastic altogether. Where it’s possible to avoid using plastic through alternative packaging materials such as paper and board, we are doing it. But cutting out plastic completely is not the solution. Plastic is light, durable, and in many cases the safest and most efficient way to get everyday products to the people who need them. It’s also often the lowest carbon footprint option compared to other materials.

But we know that companies like Unilever have a clear responsibility to invest in innovations to reduce our absolute use of plastic, and to ensure that all our plastic is kept out of the environment. And it can be done – collectively as an industry we have already developed enough technological solutions to reduce the annual flow of ocean plastic by about 80 per cent by 2040, while saving the global economy $70bn .  

The flow of plastic into the environment must be stopped – before it’s too late. A legally binging UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, backed by business, will be essential to making this happen.

Richard Slater is chief R&D officer at Unilever.

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