Circular Economy: An Explainer

As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. The rate at which we’re using up and using the world’s resources means that, before long, they’ll simply run out.

So how do we stop that from happening? Fundamentally, it’s about changing the modern world’s linear consumption habits to something much smarter. That’s where the idea of a circular economy comes in, and we’re taking big steps towards using this approach for our plastic packaging.

A pull-quote that says, “A circular economy reuses resources, creating a ‘loop’ with less waste.”

Closing the loop

So, what do we mean when we say “circular economy”? It means finding ways to make sure that our resources can be used again and again, creating a “loop” with less waste. It’s based around three principles:

  • Design packaging to reduce waste
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

Right now, a lot of our plastic use is still linear – meaning it goes in one direction: take a resource, make it into something useful, and then dispose it at the end of its life. Of all the world’s plastic packaging, currently only 14% gets recycled. Much of the rest ends up in landfill, or worse, litters our streets, streams and oceans. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea! Putting the principles of circular thinking into action at scale can have world changing effects.

Using cleverly designed materials, products, systems and business models, a circular economy can dramatically cut down or totally eliminate waste. Basically, we create things that, if they stop being useable in their original form, can easily be turned into something else… and in doing so make a renewable circle that keeps going and going and going.

Our circular journey so far

Although we’re not quite there yet, our plastic production is steadily turning that linear production line into a sustainable circle. As a business, we’re:

  1. Giving plastics a new life by using more recycled content in our packaging in North America. Last year alone, we saved more than 97 million pounds of virgin plastic in North America by using recycled content.
  2. Reducing our use of virgin plastics by half. Globally, we’ve committed to reducing our absolute use of plastic packaging – a first in the industry – by more than 100,00 metric tons by 2025! Learn more about our plastic reduction efforts here.
  3. Ensuring our packaging stays in the loop. By 2025, all of our plastic packaging globally will be recyclable, reusable or compostable.
  4. Taking responsibility for the collection of our packaging. By 2025, we will help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell globally.

What about ditching plastics altogether? Well, we’re also exploring lots of alternative materials, like paper, soluble packaging, and metals, particularly aluminum. But when considering these options, we’re careful to ensure that they’d have no unintended consequences, like increased greenhouse gas emission, for example.

Plastics aren’t the enemy

Although it gets a bad rep, plastic itself isn’t the enemy. It’s crucial for the safe and efficient distribution of products, helps avoid food waste by extending shelf life, and actually has a lower carbon footprint than many alternative materials. So, it has its place – but that place shouldn’t be in our environment.

We need to address recyclability, access to recycling, and packaging design to reduce plastic waste. By shifting to a circular economy we can get all the benefits of plastic while greatly reducing the downside of problematic waste.

What can you do to help get us closer to a circular economy?

  1. Recycle: Learn your local recycling rules, read packages carefully to ensure you are recycling correctly, and recycle all that you can. Find out more here in Recycling confusion: Sorted!
  2. Choose products from companies that use recycled content: Check packaging to make sure the companies you support also support your sustainability values. Find out more about the benefits of recycled plastic packaging.
Back to top

CONNECT WITH US

We're always looking to connect with those who share an interest in a sustainable future.

CONTACT US

Get in touch with Unilever and specialist teams in our headquarters or find contacts around the world.

Contact us