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Unilever Develops New Technology to Drive Sachet Packaging Towards Circularity

Unilever sachets in India. | Image Credit: Plastic Soup Foundation

Recycling protocol for consumer products packaged in plastic bottles and tubes is fairly straightforward. But for sachets, it’s a whole other story. To tackle industry-wide sachet waste, Unilever teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Germany to develop CreaSolv Process, a groundbreaking new technology to recycle sachet waste.

Billions of single-use sachets are sold every year, particularly in developing and emerging markets. Sachets are extremely resource-efficient and allow low-income consumers to buy small amounts of products that would otherwise be unaffordable to them. But without a viable recycling solution, sachet packaging ends up in landfill or as litter.

The CreaSolv Process technology was inspired by an innovation used to recycle TV sets, where brominated flame retardants are separated from waste electrical and electronic equipment polymers. During the process, the plastic is recovered from the sachet and is then used to create new sachets for Unilever products.

According to David Blanchard, Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer, the company intends to open source CreaSolv to scale the technology so other industry partners — and competitors — can use it.

“There is a clear economic case for delivering this. We know that globally $80-120bn is lost to the economy through failing to properly recycle plastics each year. Finding a solution represents a huge opportunity. We believe that our commitment to making 100 percent of our packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable will support the long-term growth of our business,” said Blanchard.

Unilever will open a pilot plant in Indonesia later this year to test the long-term commercial viability of the technology. Producing 64 million tons of waste each year, with 1.3 million tons ending up in the ocean, Indonesia is a critical country in which to tackle waste.

“By this innovative pilot-plant, we can realize for the first time the recycling of high-valuable polymers from dirty post-consumer multilayer sachets. Our aim is to proof both: economic profitability and environmental benefits of CreaSolv Process. Our calculations indicate that we are able to recover six kilograms of pure polymers with the same energy effort equal to the production of one kilogram virgin polymer,” said Dr. Andreas Mäurer, Department Head of Plastic Recycling at the Fraunhofer IVV.

The CreaSolv Process builds on the Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and pledge to ensure all of its plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The company has already committed to reducing the weight of its packaging by one-third by 2020 and increasing the use of recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25 percent by 2025.

While this new technology represents a major step forward, plastic waste is a multi-faceted challenge that will require continued innovation in technology, design, delivery models and materials to create a full circular economy for plastics. Unilever will continue its work with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy initiative and continue looking for additional solutions.

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