How Unilever, Patagonia, DSM-Niaga Are Driving the Circular Economy

plastic waste

by | Jan 17, 2017

plastic waste

Unilever says 100% of its plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Unilever’s commitment comes as more than 40 organizations across the plastics value chain — including Unilever and other multinationals such as Amcor, Coca-Cola, Danone, Mars, Novamont, and Veolia  — have endorsed a circular economy plan to ensure 70% of plastic packaging is reused and recycled globally, up from today’s recycling rate of 14%.

About 95% of the value of plastic packaging put on the market is disposed of after first use — the equivalent of $80 billion to $120 billion, the company says.

Shifting away from a “take-make-dispose” model of consumption to a circular economy model where plastic packaging is treated as a resource to be managed efficiently, and reused or recycled at end of life, should be a top industry priority, said Unilever CEO Paul Polman in a statement.

“Our plastic packaging plays a critical role in making our products appealing, safe and enjoyable for our consumers,” Polman said. “Yet it is clear that if we want to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material, we need to do much more as an industry to help ensure it is managed responsibly and efficiently post consumer-use.”

Polman also called on the industry to address ocean plastic waste and stop plastics from entering waterways. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes circular-economy initiatives, one-third of the plastic packaging used globally ends up in oceans and other fragile ecosystems. An Ellen MacArthur Foundation study published last year found there could be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050.

“We also need to work in partnership with governments and other stakeholders to support the development and scaling up of collection and reprocessing infrastructure which is so critical in the transition towards a circular economy,” Polman said. “Ultimately, we want all of the industry’s plastic packaging to be fully circular.”

To this end, Unilever also has renewed its membership of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for another three years and endorsed its $10 million New Plastics Economy initiative, which aims to increase plastics recycling and reuse. As part of this, Unilever says it will publish the full “palette” of plastics materials used in its packaging by 2020 to help create a plastics protocol for the industry.

Unilever also pledged to invest in proving, and then sharing with the industry, a “technical solution to recycle multi-layered sachets”  to reduce ocean plastic pollution. The company did not say how much money it plans to invest in this technology.

Previously, Unilever committed to reduce the weight of the packaging it uses this decade by one third by 2020, and increase its use of recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25% by 2025 against a 2015 baseline. In 2015, it achieved its commitment of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across its manufacturing operations.

The plan to ensure 70% of plastic packaging is reused and recycled globally is laid out in a new report, The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing action, launched yesterday by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation at the annual meeting in Davos.

It finds that 20% of plastic packaging could be profitably re-used, for example by replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable alternatives, or by designing innovative packaging models based on product refills. A further 50% of plastic packaging could be profitably recycled if improvements are made to packaging design and systems for managing it after use.

Without fundamental redesign, however, the remaining 30% of plastic packaging (by weight) will never be recycled and will continue to be landfilled or sent to incineration, the report says. Innovation in packaging design, recyclable and compostable materials, and reprocessing technologies are all required to eliminate this remaining 30%.

The action plan is part of the New Plastics Economy initiative. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says the initiative will this year launch two global innovation challenges to kick-start the redesign of materials and packaging formats, and begin building a set of global common standards, a Global Plastics Protocol, for packaging design. It will also improve recycling systems by working on projects between participant companies and cities.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Ideo are also launching a publicly available circular design guide at Davos.

As the annual World Economic Forum kicks off in Davos, other companies are announcing new circular economy initiatives.

Patagonia, for example, says this summer it will launch an e-commerce Worn Wear platform where the company will sell used Patagonia clothing and gear online, sourced directly from its customers. The retailer launched Worn Wear in 2013 as a way to encourage consumers to take care of their gear, washing and repairing as needed, and eventually recycling once the garment can no longer be used.

Patagonia’s Worn Wear repair facility in Reno, Nevada repairs over 45,000 items per year and the company operates retail repair stations around the world, in addition to providing its customers with free tools for repairing their own clothing. With every repair, the company provides feedback to their designers to improve future products.

Yesterday at Davos Patagonia received an award, the Accenture Strategy Award for Circular Economy Multinational, for Worn Wear and its other circular economy efforts.

Also today, DSM-Niaga launched the first 100% recyclable carpet in the industry.

The company, a joint venture of Dutch multinational DSM and tech startup Niaga, says more than 4 billion pounds of disposed carpeting ends up in US landfills every year.

Traditional carpeting is difficult to recycle because it is made of several different materials that must be taken apart before processing, making it costly and time consuming.

Niaga’s technology makes carpet 100% recyclable, the company says. It’s also lighter than traditional layer-bound carpeting, easier to install because there is no need for tack strips and padding, and safer for people and the environment because it eliminates volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.

Mohawk, the second-largest maker of carpet and flooring in the US, is the first to incorporate Niaga’s system into its new Airo brand.

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