Expanding the possibilities of recycling
Sachet waste, also known as multi-layer flexible packaging, is a problem. There are hundreds of billions of sachets sold around the world every year by many different companies – giving consumers a convenient way to buy anything from shampoo to food to toothpaste – but currently, there isn't a cost-effective way to recycle the leftover packaging.
At best, the sachets end up in landfill. At worst, they end up as litter in the streets, the waterways and the oceans.
Finding a way to recycle sachet waste would be a major step forward, from a business as well as a sustainability perspective. So in 2009, when I spotted some scientific research into the recycling of plastic components for electronic devices, I wondered – could this be the answer for sachet waste?
Closing the loop through viable recycling
Since 2011, we've been working with the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Germany on what has become the CreaSolv® technology. The aim is to recycle high-value polymers from used and dirty, multi-layer sachets, so they can be used again to make safe, non-food packaging.
It has taken a considerable investment of time and energy to adapt the existing science and technology to this new area. But our tests and trials have shown that CreaSolv® works. The technology produces plastic we can use again and again, offering the potential for a circular economy model. Through life-cycle analysis of the process, we also know that it enables us to recover six kilos of pure polymers with the same energy effort as the production of one kilo of virgin polymer. This means a significant reduction in the CO2 footprint of sachets.
We've also had to investigate the feasibility of collecting and processing used sachets. The results so far have given us the confidence to move to the next stage – opening a pilot plant in Indonesia where we can trial the use of the technology on a commercial scale.
Addressing a real need with sustainable thinking
We have chosen Indonesia for a reason. The country produces around 64 million tonnes of waste each year, with around 1.3 million tonnes ending up in the ocean. Only a small proportion of this waste comes from sachets, and we are just one of the businesses using flexible packaging to bring products to Indonesian consumers. Many of whom are on low incomes and prefer the affordability of sachets – but we know we share a responsibility to address this waste problem.
We expect to get our pilot plant up and running this year, eventually processing 3 tonnes of flexible plastic every day and producing recycled resin that can be used to make new sachets on a commercial basis.
Sharing the breakthrough: Calling on competitors to join in
The recycled resin we produce can of course be used by anyone, not just Unilever. And the waste sachets we use won't just come from our products – they'll be a mix of all the sachets discarded by consumers, whether those were made by us or by our competitors.
Since the problem is a shared one, we think the solution should be shared too. We want to make the technology we have developed open source, so that others, including our competitors, can use it. In fact, we'd like to invite them to join us in scaling it up, and in building a recycling infrastructure for sachet collection that supports the process. Unilever cannot solve the issue of plastic waste on our own – but along with others – we can build a system that will help in reducing the plastic waste that blights our shared landscapes and oceans.
CreaSolv® is a registered trademark of CreaCycle GmbH