Flexible packaging material – which is used in sachets and for pouches that contain products like soup and sauces – is typically made with layers of different types of plastic that each provide different qualities and perform different functions. For instance, one layer prevents moisture and/or light from spoiling the contents, another seals the packaging, and another can display printed product information.
This type of material is crucial in protecting the product quality in hot, humid storage conditions in environments like market stalls. The problem is that most plastic sachets are not currently being recycled as it’s difficult to separate these various layers, and the materials have little or no economic value. As a result, flexible packaging often ends up as waste.
But in several of our markets, plastic sachets allow low-income consumers an opportunity to buy small amounts of products – often ones that provide hygiene or nutrition benefits like shampoo, toothpaste and food – which they would otherwise not be able to afford.
Different solutions for different situations
Our commitment to halve the amount of virgin plastic we use in our packaging and to achieve an absolute reduction of more than 100,000 tonnes in plastic use includes all our plastic packaging formats, including sachets.
There are no easy solutions or quick fixes. It’s a complex technical challenge which requires different approaches for different countries. We’re working on a range of solutions which will reduce our dependence on multi-layer sachets, while improving their collection and recyclability. This includes:
- Refill. Reuse. Rethink. We’re testing refill solutions around the world to eliminate the need for plastic. In some regions, consumers choose to buy very small amounts of product, so in Bintaro in Indonesia, we have launched a refillery in the Saruga packaging-free store where shoppers can buy as much or as little as they want, using their own containers.
- Recyclable Sachets. We’re shifting to sachets made from a single type of plastic instead of multiple layers, making it easier for the packaging to be recycled. We’re overcoming this technical challenge through innovation, and in Hanoi, Vietnam, we’ve launched a small-scale trial for recyclable mono-material sachets of Clear shampoo.
- Alternative Materials. We’re trialling materials other than plastic for our sachets, such as paper which is widely recycled and collected.
- Supporting Collection and Recycling Infrastructure. We’ve committed to help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell. In India, four years ahead of plan, we will collect and process more than 100% of the plastic packaging we sell. Since 2018, Hindustan Unilever has facilitated the safe disposal of more than 120,000 tonnes of post-consumer-use waste. We’re also assessing new technologies that can recycle sachets, such as our CreaSolv® pilot plant in Indonesia. In 2021, we launched new packaging for our Rinso brand that uses recycled plastic processed by the plant.
In markets with comprehensive waste infrastructure, we know it's possible to recycle flexible packaging at scale. That's why we’re members of CEFLEX, a consortium working to make flexible packaging in Europe circular by 2025. Creating a circular economy for plastic requires system-level change beyond our industry, and we’re working with governments to support the development of waste infrastructure.
Where we focus our efforts
To ensure we focus on the right solutions, we’re guided by the waste hierarchy. We prioritise plastic-to-plastic recycling, which keeps it in the loop and means we can turn it back into new packaging.
Where that’s not possible, we support solutions that develop the local recycling market and provide clear community benefits. An example of this is our Philippines Misis Walastik sachet collection programme which converts sachet waste into school desks.
If we can’t identify suitable recycling solutions due to a lack of comprehensive waste management infrastructure, we will explore initiatives that recover energy from waste. Our view is that this is absolutely a last resort that provides an alternative to waste ending up in the environment or landfill, while recycling infrastructure is developed and scaled up.
With programmes in place across the world, we continue to invest in a range of solutions, including partnerships in waste collection and processing, buying recycled plastic and supporting well-designed Extended Producer Responsibility schemes into which Unilever directly pays for the collection and processing of its packaging.