The topic of sustainability is inextricably linked with packaging, and the topic has basically been with us since Unilever's beginnings, reports Konstantin Bark, Director Sustainable Business & Communications at Unilever. The topic really took off with the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, which was adopted ten years ago and expires this year. The topic of packaging has also gained momentum in consumer perception, he said. "Consumers expect clear answers from companies like Unilever and want to know how we are addressing the packaging issue," Bark is convinced.
"We have set ourselves clear targets. We want to reduce the weight of our packaging by 30 percent by 2020, increase PCR (post-consumer recycled materials) use to 25 percent by 2025, increase recyclability to 100 percent and reduce the use of virgin plastic by 50 percent." The particular challenge for Unilever, he said, is that these targets apply to all countries in which the company operates; however, in many countries, an appropriate infrastructure for mechanical recycling does not exist. "If a recyclability can only be mapped on a lab scale, we're not talking about recyclability," Bark said. "As a consequence, we want to use less and better plastic or do without it altogether."
The new Cremissimo outer packaging is an example of what Unilever means by recyclability, he said. The packaging is made up of several parts: the tray with the label and a protective and separating film that is pulled over the ice cream. Before the packaging changeover, all these parts were made of different materials, which made recyclability much more difficult. Now the complete packaging is made of 100 % PP, contains no barrier layers or barriers, can be correctly assigned to the yellow bag by the consumer and is disposed of there. With appropriately available technology, the packaging is correctly sortable and thus suitable for mechanical recycling.
Not limited editions but industrially scalable standards
When using PCR, it is crucial that the plastic in question has actually been in the hands of consumers and is not industrial waste that has already been used in cycles for a long time. "We're not talking about limited editions or small individual initiatives like social plastic projects in countries where there is no collection and sorting infrastructure when we use PCR. For us, it's about converting entire product brands or ranges over the long term and using post-consumer recyclate. In doing so, we are making commitments to our suppliers and making significant investments," Bark clarifies.
"This is even more significant as the price of crude oil has dropped in recent weeks due to the pandemic, which of course affects the price of virgin plastic relative to recycled plastic. Anyone who remains committed to a sustainability agenda needs to know that this comes with investment." Recycled plastic is hard to compete with because the low price of oil means the price of primary plastics is often lower than secondary plastics.
Where is Unilever already using PCR in practice? The bottles for Dove are made of 100 % PCR, or more precisely rHDPE from a special sorting of light-colored grades. Slight inclusions can be seen, because a pure white color is currently impossible to achieve with PCR. The cap itself is not yet made of PCR.
Food packaging, however, presents a particular challenge: "Here, it is much more difficult for us to use recycled plastic, and legal issues still need to be clarified," Bark explains. However, he says, it has been possible to produce the head-end bottles for Hellmann's from 100 % PCR (rPET). The PET comes from a separate bottle collection. Separate PET collections are the only PCR resource for food to date, he said, as they are the only way to ensure food safety. Here, too, a slight gray coloration of the recyclate packaging can be observed. As with the Dove bottle, the cap for Hellmann's is also not made of PCR.
What might a solution to the problem of food grade recyclates look like? "The topic of chemical recycling is still heavily demonized at the moment, especially by some political circles. But we see a great opportunity here and also a solution to some of the unresolved issues in the food sector," Bark adds. The company has presented a first trial with the Magnum pint cup, which is partly made of rPP from chemical recycling. The material can be used for food.
Unilever is also working with Neste and Recycling Technologies to further develop and harness chemical recycling to recover and recycle plastic packaging. As part of a three-year project, Recycling Technologies is using its recycling equipment to process waste plastics into an oil. Neste then tests and analyzes its quality and suitability for further refinement into high-quality feedstock for the production of new plastics. These can be processed into plastic packaging, for example. Unilever brings in additional expertise that relates to the design of packaging with a view to its recyclability.
"Another sticking point is the availability of PCR, especially in the quality in which we need the material," Bark cautions. "In addition, alternatives to primary plastics often incur more costs that cannot necessarily be passed on to consumers. We need standards for recycling processes and qualities, we need authorization of recycled plastic for food. Legislators are called upon to make improvements here so that we can have planning security," Bark concludes.
PCR not on the market in sufficient quantity and quality
Jürgen Dornheim, Director Corporate Packaging Innovation & Sustainability at Procter & Gamble, also complains that the quantities of PCR that a company like Procter & Gamble (P & G) needs to use are not available in the necessary high quality. What measures has Procter & Gamble taken
Among other things, the company is relying on Pure-Cycle-Advanced Physical Recycling. This is an innovative process for cleaning used polypropylene. The resulting rPP material is free of color pigments, food-grade and in industrial use by cooperation partners in the USA and EU.
Another problem is that of incorrect sorting: it prevents packaging from finding its way back as recyclate. Under the auspices of AIM, the European brand association, more than 85 international companies and organizations from the entire value chain (manufacturers, retailers, recyclers) have joined forces. The aim of the initiative is to advance the topics of intelligent packaging sorting and recycling at the European level. The use of invisible digital watermarks on packaging to help improve sorting and high-quality recycling is currently considered a promising technology. Pixel patterns create a signal area, and no special inks or plastic additives are required. The process works independently of material and can be used for plastic, metal, glass and fiber material. Not only can it be used to improve sorting, but it can also be used at checkout counters, for example, so the whole project has gained even more momentum. The branded goods industry is thus just entering the next project phase under the name "Holy Grail 2.0".
Since October 2020, Procter & Gamble has been supplying eleven variants of Lenor Unstoppables with the digital watermark on the packaging in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The packaging can thus be recognized in sorting facilities equipped for this purpose and fed into the correct recycling stream.
The EC 30 pilot project from P & G in the USA goes many steps further. This is a new line of cleaning products that does not require water. The innovative products are not available in the old soap and detergent forms, but in small fabric-like patterns that foam up when water is added during washing and cleaning. The new product form significantly reduces the size and weight of detergents, making them easier and smaller to package, ship and store.
There are eight types: Hand soap, face wash, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent, surface cleaner and toilet cleaner. For example, instead of a large bottle of liquid detergent, the new cleaning product can be brought home in a small box weighing only 30 grams, which is packed in biodegradable cardboard boxes.
The packaging of the future
So what is it like, the packaging of the future? "The packaging of the future is sustainable, recyclable and - this may seem provocative - it is also superfluous. Not everyone likes to hear that, least of all our packaging suppliers. The best packaging of the future will be that which will not be necessary at all," says Dornheim.