Unilever’s head of R&D, David Jones, takes a closer look at plastic packaging and its PCR journey, and shares his views with PKN on creating a circular economy here in Australia.
There’s never really a perfect time to step back and think about the amount of plastic in our lives. Many of us sit at our desks throughout the day writing on plastic keyboards, make calls on phones with plastic cases and – despite our best intentions – end up throwing soft plastics into the general waste when we are short on time.
The hard truth is plastic has a place in all our lives. But that place should not be in our environment, or at the expense of it.
In Australia, we consume 3.5 million tonnes of plastic annually and five kilograms of plastic enter the ocean per person each year. That’s more than three times the global average. But in our everyday lives it can be easy to forget about these numbers.
Because I’m also part of the Research and Development at Unilever ANZ – the manufacturer of some of the biggest household brands such as OMO and Dove – I’ve always been driven by a great sense of responsibility to reduce plastic waste more rigorously in my life.
Here’s the problem: plastic is used for many reasons. It’s relatively cheap, it’s hardy, and when it meets different types of materials – liquids, electronics, powders – it retains its integrity. That means it doesn’t disintegrate or leak, and it holds its form. It is also a popular material for food packaging because it keeps food safer to eat for longer.
Overall, that is a new lease of life for over 1200 tonnes of recycled plastic in Australia and New Zealand since 2018, or 200,000 yellow kerbside bins filled with plastic bottles. By starting from the plastic in our packaging, we can help consumers reduce their footprint. For companies like Unilever, we’re partnering with our suppliers Visy and Pact to source Australian-recycled HDPE plastic to help reduce the amount of virgin plastic that enters the market. Today, the bottles Unilever makes in Australia – including Dove, OMO, TRESemmé, Surf, and Toni & Guy – are made with 25 per cent to 70 per cent recycled plastic.
From here though, it’s about how we can all work to close the loop on the recycling process.
Making invisible plastic visible
Some plastics can be recycled, and some cannot. In Australia, plastics numbered 1,2 and 5 are the easiest to recycle – think soft drink bottles, ice cream containers or shampoo – and these are clearly labelled on packaging. You’ve also got low density polyethylene 4 (LDPE 4), a soft and flexible material is commonly used in shopping bags and flexible bottles, that can be recycled at specific locations such as RedCycle in Coles and Woolworths.
Our goal at Unilever is to ensure all our plastic packaging is high-grade and recyclable – we focus on using PET (1), HDPE (2) and PP (5) bottles.
It sounds simple enough in theory, but in practice it can be much more complicated. For example, until recently, number 2 (HDPE) black plastic could not be ‘seen’ by recycling technology and therefore was not being recycled as much as it should be.
Plastics are sorted by materials recovery facilities (MRFs) here in Australia, which are operated by waste minimisation companies and local governments. Most MRFs use near infra-red sorting technology to differentiate between plastics; carbon black that is used to create dark shades of plastics disrupts this detection process, sending these plastics to waste.
To ensure that the MRF process can adequately capture and pick out these plastic bottles for recycling, our Unilever R&D teams worked with suppliers to research new ways of creating darker colour shades without the use of carbon black. Our aim was to create the dark colours we needed without disrupting the plastic sorting process.
Today, most dark coloured plastic bottles made by Unilever can be detected and recycled indefinitely. Globally, this means an additional 2500 tonnes of plastic bottles can be sorted and sent for recycling each year. That is equivalent to the weight of 1250 family-sized cars.
Making a market for recycled plastic
Another way manufacturers can help reduce plastic waste is by using recycled plastic in our packaging.
Unilever is dedicated to making a market for recycled plastic. It does come at a cost – right now, we are paying slightly more for recycled plastic than virgin plastic. We also work very closely with our suppliers to ensure that our products using recycled plastic retain the right structural integrity and safety, given the recycled plastics on the market do not always perform as well as virgin plastics.
Our hope is that over time this will change as more manufacturers like us insist on prioritising recycled materials. In Australia, shoppers can look out for our bottles of OMO laundry liquid, Dove and TRESemmé bottles which contain between 25 per cent and 70 per cent recycled plastic and rising.
Despite being a leader in this space, we know we have a long way to go on a global scale. Right now, we are sitting at 11 per cent recycled plastic content, but our aim is to move quickly and scale this to 25 per cent by 2025.
It will take a collective effort to change a world in which virgin plastic reigns king. The good thing is that many of us have shown the collective will to make this happen. As we become more aware of how to encourage a marketplace for quality recycled plastic, we make it truly possible to keep plastic out of the environment.