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30 June 2022
Unilever’s plastic problem in Asia
Unilever has long trumpeted its environmental and social agenda, but a Reuters report highlights how the FMCG giant has been working to undermine laws aimed at ending the use of single-serve plastic sachets in at least three Asian countries.
Not so long ago, shops across Asia would measure out small amounts of products like sugar or coffee into containers people brought with them. But that began to change back in the 1980s with the advent of plastic sachets, which big brands were able to use to develop and build brand loyalty.
855 billion plastic sachets are now sold every year industry-wide, but their multilayered design of plastic and aluminium means they can’t be recycled and they have no real value. Meanwhile, they are a major source of environmental pollution, killing everything from fish to elephants. Back in 2020, CEO Alan Jope was clear: “We have to get rid of them,” he told an online plastic sustainability event.
When, in 2020, Sri Lanka proposed ending the use of plastic sachets, Unilever first sought to dissuade officials, arguing that “sachets are a poor man’s commodity”, according to Anil Jasinghe, secretary of Sri Lanka’s Environment Ministry. And when a ban on sachets sized 20 ml or smaller was implemented, Unilever continued to sell 6 ml single-portion sachets of shampoo and hair conditioner, using a labelling sleight of hand that attempted to retail them in four-packs as one 24 ml unit.
“Unilever tried to deceive us,” Jasinghe told Reuters, although he added that, following a threat of legal action, Unilever subsequently stopped selling 6 ml sachets.
Reuters further reports that the company lobbied against proposed bans on plastic sachets in India and the Philippines. These have been dropped, but Reuters adds that it “could not determine if Unilever’s lobbying influenced the outcome”. The cleanup efforts that have replaced possible bans include the option of burning sachets as fuel, so releasing carbon dioxide and toxins into the air.
Ending the use of multilayered plastic sachets is “a complex technical challenge, with no quick fixes”, according to Unilever. A spokesperson says the firm is “phasing out” such sachets by using a variety of potential fixes, including product refill systems, new recycling technology and packaging material that’s easier to recycle.