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David Blanchard

David
Blanchard

Chief Category R&D Officer at Unilever.

Circular economy expert
David Blanchard

Circular Economy at Unilever

 

Awareness of the environmental and social impacts of plastics and packaging has grown considerably over the past couple of years. What are the key issues we’re facing? 

 

David Blanchard: Packaging plays an important role in delivering consumer benefits, whether it’s protecting products, preventing food waste or leaks, or making transportation easier.  But there’s no denying that it comes with consequences – by ending up in landfill, in the ocean, or as litter. That’s simply not sustainable. Shocking findings from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggest there could be more waste plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Over the past few years, there’s been a growing movement to shine a spotlight on the issue. Quite rightly, people don’t like what they’re seeing – packaging in oceans and landfills – and they realise they can have an impact and change this.

 

Is Unilever switching to circular practices because of the pressure coming from consumers?

 

D.B.: Operating sustainably has always been part of Unilever’s DNA and we have long said that to do so helps the business – by driving growth, cutting costs, reducing risks, for example in supply, and driving trust. On packaging, there are clear benefits for the business. Reducing packaging and embracing more circular thinking reduces costs both in the short and longer term. And, yes, we’re seeing increasing evidence that consumers want sustainable and responsible products, so the opportunity for brands here is huge.

In fact, research carried out earlier this year revealed that a third of consumers are now buying brands based on their social and environmental impact. Over 50% of consumers are more likely to buy products that are sustainably produced.

 

What is the role for business in tackling this global issue?

 

D.B.: There is no question that business has a critical role to play in addressing this challenge, although it will take all stakeholders coming together to deliver an effective long-term solution.

 

Manufacturers like Unilever have to support the transition to a circular economy by designing products that are recyclable, reusable or compostable. At the start of the year, we announced our commitment to do this for all our plastic packaging by 2025. We’re also working to increase the amount of recycled content in our plastic packaging to at least 25% by 2025.

 

As part of these commitments, we announced in May 2017 a new technology to recycle plastic sachets, called CreaSolv. Billions of sachets are sold every year, particularly in developing markets. They’re an efficient way of reaching low-income consumers with products that would otherwise be unaffordable to them. However, without a recycling solution, sachets end up in landfill, waterways or the ocean. We hope this new technology will be successful in addressing this major challenge.

 

It is also important to reduce the amount of packaging we use. By 2020 we will reduce the weight of packaging that we use by a third, by reviewing the structure and design of packaging, eliminating unnecessary packaging, and even developing concentrated versions of certain products.

 

A good example is our UK Comfort Intense fabric conditioner. Because it’s ultra-concentrated, there is less of it, which has reduced packaging by 43%, and it’s just as efficient. We have also switched from rigid plastic bottles to flexible packaging – using less raw material and saving in terms of transportation (you can get more of it on palettes and trucks) and making energy cost-savings.

 

But Unilever can’t solve the issue of plastic waste alone. We also need local governments to improve recycling infrastructure and set-up collection systems, so we can get these materials back and close the loop. In addition, we need governments’ and others’ help to deliver this infrastructure efficiently and consistently so consumers know what part they can play. Finally, we need to keep consumers informed, and to make it easy for them to recycle the packaging when they’re done with it.

 

What are the key areas of cooperation between business, governments, NGOs and civil society organisations?

 

D.B.: Partnerships are the solution to this type of challenge. We need to work with others to ensure we come up with solutions at scale.

One example is the work led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to create a ‘Global Plastics Protocol’, which aims to build a set of global common standards for packaging design. As part of this, we will share all of the plastic materials we use in our packaging by 2020. To move towards a circular economy we need the whole consumer goods industry on the journey, which means moving from individual company efforts to joint industry action.

Another example is the role businesses can play in supporting local collections and infrastructure. To recycle plastic sachets using our CreaSolv technology we need to set up waste collection schemes to channel the sachets to be recycled. We’re working with local waste banks, the government and retailers to make it easy for consumers to recycle.

We all need to work together if we want a complete shift in how we think about and use resources, from the linear model of take-make-dispose to a circular model.

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