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After so many years of environmental dithering, things are starting to move and change is coming. Unilever, one of the world’s largest corporations, has signed an important deal with Veolia. This company provides services to local governments specifically in water, waste, transport and energy management. Unilever, a huge print and packaging buyer, is working with Veolia to improve local recycling infrastructures, specifically for plastics recycling and recovery.

Laurel Brunner.
Laurel Brunner.

One of the hardest problems to crack when it comes to recycling is sorting waste for subsequent processing. Plastics are especially challenging because there are so many different kinds. There are technologies to handle some of of the reprocessing in waste handling facilities, but process efficiency begins with consumers and efficient local recycling infrastructures. Unfortunately consumers get mixed messages about which plastics can and cannot be recycled in their region, so they are inevitably inconsistent in their efforts. The partnership between Unilever and Veolia could lay the foundations for significant local improvements that support consumers and plastics recycling more effectively. It’s clear that integrated recycling and recovery needs leadership and viable commercial partnerships for waste sorting and processing.

Integrated waste management and recycling infrastructures are complicated, expensive to develop and politically sensitive. But as the value in waste recovery starts to be recognised, a whole business is growing up around extracting value. Plastic waste can be recycled or reused, but the whole process has to turn a profit or at least break even. This is what Veolia and Unilever are exploring through their initiative.

Unilever and Veolia have a three year arrangement to conduct several pilot projects in order to work out how to improve the effectiveness of existing waste collection systems. They will consider in improvements in plastic waste collection and recycling infrastructures in order to create local circular economies that prevent plastics getting into the wider environment. The project will start in India and Indonesia, where waste collection is mostly informal. But if all goes well, the pilots will extend to other geographies. Veolia and Unilever want it to be possible for their model for industrial plastics recovery and recycling infrastructures to be applied anywhere and for any kind of waste.

This partnership supports Unilever’s existing commitments to sustainable packaging and it’s a big step. It acknowledges the shared responsibility between the sources of plastic packaging waste and waste handlers to work locally to manage the value chain more effectively. Currently only 14 per cent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling with around 75 per cent ending up either in landfill or lost in the environment. If Veolia and Unilever can find a way to monetise waste more effectively, we expect these numbers to change dramatically and fast.

- Laurel Brunner

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This article was produced by the Verdigris Project, an industry initiative intended to raise awareness of print’s positive environmental impact. This weekly commentary helps printing companies keep up to date with environmental standards, and how environmentally friendly business management can help improve their bottom lines. Verdigris is supported by the following companies: Agfa Graphics, EFI, Fespa, HP, Kodak, Kornit, Ricoh, Spindrift, Splash PR, Unity Publishing and Xeikon.

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