• Unilever worked with SABIC, to make its 30 million Magnum tubs from food-grade recycled polypropylene plastic. The tubs are sold throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
    Unilever worked with SABIC, to make its 30 million Magnum tubs from food-grade recycled polypropylene plastic. The tubs are sold throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Global FMCG giant Unilever says that its R&D teams are working to develop solutions to keep plastics in the circular economy, and find new materials to replace virgin single-use plastic.

According to the company, the findings of a recent survey by Boston Consulting Group of 15,000 people globally, which revealed that 83 per cent of millennial and Gen Z consumers said they’d be willing to pay more for products that came in sustainable packaging, has triggered a new ecosystem of alternative packaging materials and new business models. 

This includes the use of recycled and recyclable plastic, graded especially for food products to ensure safety.

Closing the loop on plastic packaging waste

Unilever says a circular economy only works if the food packaging, after its intended use, returns into the economy for use as food packaging again. "However there is currently no uniform legislative framework in place for the use of recycled plastics in food packaging," said Unilever. "So, while demand for recycled plastic is set to grow, we need clear and consistent legislation with industry support to scale up and supply food-grade recycled plastic."

Using mechanical and advanced recycling to increase supply

“Presently, there is not enough supply of recycled plastics to meet the needs for use as food packaging,” said F&R packaging capability director, Sanjeev Das, explaining that there is limited availability of food-grade recycled plastics – especially food-grade recycled polypropylene (rPP) and polyethylene (rPE) plastics which account for 75 per cent of the plastics used in Unilever’s food packaging.

Unilever says that this has seen its Foods and Refreshment R&D team work to create sustainable sources using two complementary routes.

The first is mechanical recycling which sees items sorted according to their material. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic used to make plastic bottles is sorted into one recycling stream, polyethylene (PE) used to make plastic bags into another. Once separated, they’re cleaned and transformed into recycled raw material to make new items.

Unilever confirms that all its Hellmann’s plastics bottles and jars in the US and Canada are made from 100 per cent recycled and recyclable plastic which have been recovered this way.

The second way Unilever says that it is increasing the supply of recycled plastic is through advanced recycling. This sees mixed plastic waste broken down into its fundamental building blocks and reconstructed to make new plastic packaging that is especially suitable for food-grade packaging.

Working with its partner SABIC, Unilever says it uses this technology to provide it with ready access to food-grade recycled polypropylene plastic to make its 30 million Magnum pint tubs sold throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Common policies and legislation needed to scale up

Unilever says that it currently has the technology but not the common standards and scale. “To aid the circular transformation of food packaging, there is an urgent need for alignment on goals and related policies. This would enable further investments in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure and technologies, including mechanical and advanced recycling,” said Sanjeev.

The company believes it is only with a common policy framework and industry collaboration that it can begin to make real progress in creating sustainable supplies of food-grade recycled plastic and the scale to meet increasing demand.

"The more others come on board and seek to tackle this together, the bigger the impact we can have to help us achieve our vision of a waste-free world," said Unilever.

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