We have made modest progress against our targets. This area is complex, as we anticipated. In some countries there is almost no infrastructure available to collect waste and some materials cannot readily be recycled as technologies do not yet exist. In other countries with more developed infrastructure, certain packaging formats, although manufactured from popular materials such as PET, are still not collected and recycled in significant volumes.
We are using the knowledge gained from infrastructure studies and pilot initiatives to develop the most suitable solutions, whether this involves developing a new recycling waste stream or reviewing the materials used in our products.
Recycling and Recovery Index
We have developed a Recycling and Recovery Index (RRI) to track recycling and recovery rates. The Index enables us to calculate the percentage of packaging per format type that ends up in landfill and uses data from publicly available national indices. In countries where indices across some or all material types are not available, we make assumptions based on local knowledge.
For example, if plastic (HDPE) bottles in a certain country have a recycling rate of 50% and a recovery* rate of 25% and we use 100 tonnes of plastic for our bottles, we would calculate the recycling and recovery rate as follows:
100 tonnes minus 50% to recycling
50 tonnes minus 25% to recovery
62.5 tonnes plastic is recycled or recovered
100 tonnes minus 62.5 tonnes
37.5 tonnes plastic goes to landfill
We have initiated a number of pilot projects from which we are hoping to select the most successful to be rolled out elsewhere. Many of our projects incentivise consumers to start recycling. While incentivising is not a sustainable long-term solution, it can help people take the first step towards making recycling a lifelong habit.
We are also pursuing projects that explore systemic solutions through improving local waste infrastructure, working with local government and waste services providers.
Recycling rates, practices and facilities differ around the world, as do the policies of municipalities and governments. In countries such as Brazil, waste can be seen as an opportunity for economic activity, with many informal but highly organised networks collecting waste for recycling. In mainland Europe, a significant amount of waste is incinerated, with systems to harness energy from the process.
Benefits of recycling
We continually pursue simplification in the number and combinations of materials we use to make our packaging with the objective of ensuring more packaging formats can be recycled/recovered. Habit change is slow but we are noticing more and more consumers are being drawn to the benefits of recycling – less litter, less waste sent to disposal, less use of virgin materials and potential savings in greenhouse gas emissions.
But achieving increases in recycling rates is not simple. It is technically possible to recycle or recover almost all packaging materials but to be viable, recycling must be economically attractive, and above all must happen within a workable infrastructure.
How are we encouraging more recycling?
The biggest challenge in recycling post-consumer waste is in retrieval – getting used packaging from the consumer to recycling centres.
We are building our knowledge of recycling in several ways. In the US, our Dove and Suave brands are working with Recyclebank to incentivise consumers to recycle more bathroom products. Unilever Ventures has invested indirectly in Recyclebank as it will help us increase our understanding of how to encourage people to recycle more.
In Europe, we have commissioned studies in several countries aimed at understanding the recycling infrastructure for polypropylene (PP) pots, trays and tubs. These are widely used by our margarine brands, Wall’s ice creams and Vaseline jars. The studies have shown that this type of packaging is hardly recycled and, at best, is burnt for energy. We are currently engaged in discussions with players from each stage of the recycling process. We intend to pilot a project in 2013 focused on creating a viable business model which stimulates greater demand for PP pots, trays and tubs to be collected, sorted and recycled.
Our detailed analysis shows that national recycling rates for particular materials often lack clarity. For example, a 90% recycling rate for aluminium packaging may be based largely on recycling of aluminium drinks cans, and it is therefore inappropriate to apply the same rate when calculating waste to landfill for our aluminium aerosol packaging.
This analysis helps focus our efforts to increase recycling for specific packaging formats. For example we have increased aerosol deodorant recycling through strategic partnerships with industry associations and some of our customers in the UK, Brazil and Mexico, focused on infrastructure development and consumer education programmes. One obstacle to aerosol recycling is the myth that aerosols cannot be recycled.
In 2012 we started to partner with the Earth 911, who specialise in providing consumers with accessible and actionable recycling information and Nextlife, a producer of polypropylene (PP) resins from plastic waste, to prove a business case for recycling PP deodorant sticks. The initiative incentivises school children to bring deo sticks to a central collection point, in exchange for financial rewards towards their school. There are currently 50 schools participating in the pilot programme.
In the UK, our deodorants business has entered into a joint initiative with the UK’s aluminium sector to boost the collection and recycling of aerosols by local government. The initiative seeks to educate consumers and stimulate recycling where the infrastructure is already well developed. It is being run in conjunction with the Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation (Alupro), the British Aerosol Manufacturers’ Association (BAMA) and manufacturers of aluminium foil trays, which are also being collected. Our contribution to the UK aerosol industry has been recognised by an Environmental Sustainability Award from BAMA.
When we started the initiative in 2009, about 67% of local authorities accepted aerosols for recycling. At the beginning of 2011, 41 authorities had signed up, by September 2011 the number participating had risen to 82% and by the end of 2012 the figure was 93%.
During 2012 we joined the Metal Matters campaign to continue our focus on increasing recycling rates.
In Brazil, Unilever has set up 114 recycling stations with retailer Pão de Açúcar. All items collected are donated to around 30 co-operatives, which separate, bale and sell them, generating income for more than 1,000 people. Since 2001, more than 51,000 tonnes of materials have been collected and since 2007, around 850,000 litres of cooking oil have also been collected. In August 2010, we also started a deodorants pilot in partnership with the supermarket chain. The pilot was successful and has led to the permanent introduction of aerosol collection at Pão de Açúcar sites. To date we have collected more than 3,200 tonnes of aerosols through collection stations, with five co-operatives recycling aerosols. We plan to extend this.
Encouraging recycling behaviour
Although many consumers recycle kitchen waste, the bathroom tends to be forgotten. In 2011, we partnered with RecycleBank in the US to encourage consumers to recycle Dove and Suave shampoo bottles in return for money off coupons. An online module educated people about what they can recycle, what recycling symbols to look for and then rewarded them with points which could be redeemed for goods and services. The Dove module was viewed six million times. Unilever Ventures has invested indirectly in Recyclebank as it will help us increase our understanding of how to encourage people to recycle more.
In the UK, Unilever partnered with Torbay Council in 2011 to help promote its new kerbside recycling service for mixed plastics. Many of our products, including Flora, Wall’s ice cream, Persil and Knorr are packaged in mixed plastic packaging which is not yet widely recycled. As a result of the scheme, 60,000 households are able to recycle mixed plastics such as ice cream tubs – materials which would previously have been sent to landfill. This is the first time we have worked with a council on a mixed plastics recycling scheme and our actions have been recognised by UK waste charity WRAP (Waste and Resource Action Programme). We are awaiting the take-up results that will determine our next steps.
Increasing the use of recycled materials
We already use a significant amount of recycled material, particularly paper and board. We want to increase the amount we use, for example in our plastic packaging.
We believe that our demand for post-consumer recycled materials, as well as demand from other fast-moving consumer goods companies, will drive up volumes, thereby making a more attractive business case for re-processors and acting as a catalyst to increase the collection and reprocessing of materials.
High quality post consumer recycled material (PCR) is difficult to come by and can often be sold at a premium price. In 2012 we used 3,126 tonnes of plastic PCR materials, up from 1,900 tonnes in 2011, in our packaging and continue to find opportunities to use even more. We are also working with re-processors to find opportunities to develop closed loop systems which would guarantee a continual supply of high quality PCR.