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Q&A with Pablo Costa: Unilever’s progress towards our plastic goals
Five years on from the launch of the Global Commitment initiative to help build a circular economy for plastic, two new reports outline its learnings and industry progress. The perfect time to speak to our Head of Packaging about how we’re getting on with our own ambitious goals.
This week, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published the , which looks at how signatories of the Global Commitment – including Unilever – are faring against their targets to tackle plastic pollution and create a circular economy.
We caught up with Pablo Costa, our Global Head of Packaging, to find out about the progress we’re making towards our own goals. Pablo is responsible for our packaging strategy and innovation. He oversees our industry-leading R&D Packaging Centre, delivering our ambitious vision for a waste-free world and for superior, sustainable product packaging.
- What is the Global Commitment and why is it important?
It’s a voluntary initiative – led by EMF in collaboration with UNEP – which first launched in 2018, when the world faced the stark reality of a future where the amount of plastic in the ocean could surpass the number of fish.
Since then, it has played a crucial role in mobilising the industry under a common vision for a circular economy with shared targets, rules and reporting metrics. The 500 businesses who signed up represent 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally.
- Where has Unilever made progress?
So far, we’ve decreased our use of virgin plastic by 13% versus our 2019 baseline, putting us among the top-performing Global Commitment signatories.
The proportion of recycled plastic – known as post-consumer resin (PCR) – in our packaging has soared, from 1% to 21% in four years. This might sound straightforward, but you get a whole new level of appreciation when you go behind the scenes and see what it takes to source high-quality recycled content, and then get the materials to look and behave just as they would if they were ‘new’ virgin plastic.
I’m proud that many of our biggest brands – like Hellmann’s, Dove and Sunlight – are using high levels of PCR in their packaging. Using recycled materials not only helps to ensure that more plastic is collected and recycled, and – crucially – diverted away from the environment, but it also has a significantly lower overall greenhouse gas footprint than virgin plastic across the full packaging life cycle. Together, Global Commitment signatories are estimated to be contributing to the equivalent of a barrel of oil being left in the ground every two seconds.
We also have more packaging innovations using less or no plastic than ever, such as our Dirt is Good (Persil, Skip and OMO) laundry capsules in plastic-free cardboard boxes. That’s just one example of how we’re radically reshaping our plastic use by rethinking our approach to packaging design, materials and business models.
- What are the biggest challenges ahead?
It’s safe to say that when we set our plastics goals all those years ago, it involved making a pretty bold move based on the information available to us at the time.
Take our 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable target, for example. We’re making progress designing our packaging for recycling, but what actually gets recycled at scale relies on local collection, sorting and processing facilities. That’s the difference between ‘technical’ and ‘actual’ recyclability. By leading the industry and sending a clear signal to the market with the ‘actual’ recyclability goal we set ourselves, we hoped that the infrastructure would follow. But the reality is a big gap remains.
We also know that recycling is not enough on its own to reduce virgin plastic use or tackle the problem of hard-to-recycle flexible plastic packaging, which remain top priorities.
So yes, we’ve made progress. But if we truly want to overcome the pivotal hurdles identified in the Five Years In review, we need bolder innovations and new solutions on an even bigger scale. To that end, we’ll be providing an update on our packaging sustainability strategy and commitments in the coming months, so stay tuned.
- What solutions will truly get us to a waste-free world?
We’re stepping up our investment in material science and prioritising initiatives that will reduce the amount of plastic we use. In recent years, I’ve had the honour of setting up our dedicated Packaging R&D Centre, where our world-class packaging experts, digital modellers and material scientists are developing next-generation packaging that’s recyclable and renewable. The team have been hard at work assessing and developing a variety of technical solutions, which I am very much looking forward to bringing to market.
I’m also excited to see the evolution of the UN Global Plastics Treaty over the next 18 months. As part of the , Unilever is advocating for a legally binding treaty that ends plastic pollution. The treaty is a historic opportunity to reduce plastic production and use – especially virgin plastic – and harmonise regulatory standards and policies across markets through global rules and mandatory targets.
More than ever, we need policy to drive systemic change and ensure that all businesses play by the same rules. That includes the remaining 80% of plastic packaging volumes not currently covered by the Global Commitment. After all, industry commitments and voluntary initiatives cannot solve the problem alone.