Unilever’s Plastic Playbook

Two years ago, Alan Jope, Chief Executive of Unilever plc, said his company would do away with the small plastic packets it uses to sell single servings of shampoo, toothpaste and other basic products because of the widespread pollution caused by this packaging.

These palm-sized pouches, known as sachets, are often associated with ketchup or cosmetic samples in wealthy countries. But they’ve exploded in the developing world where they’re used to selling everything from laundry detergent to spices and snacks to low-income households.

They have also contributed to a global waste crisis. Made from layers of plastic and aluminum, sachets are nearly impossible to recycle and non-biodegradable. They pollute neighborhoods, block garbage dumps, choke waterways and harm wild creatures. But despite Unilever executives publicizing the environmental damage this packaging caused, the multinational has made efforts to undermine laws aimed at eliminating sachets in at least three Asian countries, Reuters has learned.

In Sri Lanka, the company urged the government to reconsider a proposed ban on sachets and then tried to maneuver around it once the rules were imposed, a senior environmental official told Reuters. In India and the Philippines, Unilever lobbied against proposed sachet bans that were later repealed by lawmakers, directly involved sources said.

“Evil because you can’t recycle it.”

London-based Unilever declined to comment on the company’s lobbying activities in these markets, saying it abides by Sri Lankan law. A spokesperson said the company is phasing out multi-layer sachets by using a variety of potential solutions, including product refill systems, new recycling technology and packaging materials that are easier to recycle.

Unilever, the maker of hundreds of household brands, including Dove soap, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, first brought plastic bags to India on a large scale in the 1980s. The consumer giant remains one of the biggest users of this packaging and other companies have followed suit. According to A Plastic Planet, a London-based environmental group, 855 billion plastic sachets are sold industry-wide every year, enough to cover the entire Earth’s surface.

In recent years, Unilever has become an outspoken critic of sachets.

The multi-layered design of the packaging is “bad because you can’t recycle it,” said Hanneke Faber, Unilever’s President for Global Food & Refreshments, in an investor presentation in 2019.

At an online plastic sustainability event in July 2020, CEO Jope continued.

“We need to get rid of them,” Jope said in response to a question about how the use of sachets fits into Unilever’s announced plans to reduce plastic pollution. “It’s virtually impossible to recycle mechanically and so it has no real value.”

Eight months later, the company got its chance. Sri Lanka last year introduced new rules to phase out sachets in an effort to stop a tidal wave of plastic waste that is pillaging beaches, bleaching coral reefs and endangering wildlife on this Indian Ocean island.

But Unilever continued to sell small 6-milliliter (ml) sachets containing one serving of shampoo and hair conditioner in Sri Lanka, despite the new ban on plastic sachets of 20 ml or smaller, according to the national environment ministry and two local plastic pollution charities. †

Sachets sold in local stores appear in sheets taped together with tear seams, making it easy for buyers to separate a single serving. To get around the ban, the three sources said, Unilever has relabelled its 6ml sachets to indicate that they cannot be sold individually, but in four packs as one 24ml unit.

“Unilever was trying to mislead us,” Anil Jasinghe, secretary of the Sri Lankan environment ministry, told Reuters from its office in Colombo, the country’s largest metro area with more than 2.3 million inhabitants.

Jasinghe said his ministry was threatening legal action and Unilever “to their credit” quickly stopped selling 6ml sachets. Still, the hard-won measure only applied to the smallest sizes. Millions of larger sachets are still sold in Sri Lanka every day.

In a statement to Reuters, Unilever said it is fully compliant with Sri Lanka’s regulations.

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