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Unilever, EU Build on Plans for Plastics Recycling, But Problems Plague UK

Image credit: Unilever

This week, building on news that HP, Inc and IKEA joined a global consortium working to develop the first global network of ocean-bound plastics supply chains, the public and private sector made further strides on creating a circular economy for packaging around the world.

On the corporate front, Unilever and Veolia announced that they will jointly work on emerging technologies that will help create a circular economy for plastics across various geographies, starting in India and Indonesia.

In 2017, Unilever made an industry-leading commitment to ensure that all its plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. To help create an end market for this material, the CPG giant also committed to increase the recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25 percent by 2025. The company says these targets are driving real change in the business — in particular, how packaging is designed for recyclability and reuse.



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Marc Engel, Unilever’s Chief Supply Chain Officer, commented: “The scale of the plastic waste issue is getting worse, not better, with the production of plastics expected to double over the next two decades. We all have a lot more to do to address this critical issue and we hope that by partnering with Veolia, we can take meaningful strides towards a circular economy.”

In reaching this agreement, Unilever and Veolia acknowledge that the issue of plastic waste is a shared responsibility that requires bold action across the value chain to develop and scale up collection and reprocessing infrastructure, which is critical in the transition towards a circular economy. The work will focus on material collection, which will help channel recycled content back into the value chain. Veolia will work with Unilever to implement used packaging collection solutions, add recycling capacity and develop new processes and business models through this partnership in various countries.

“There is an undeniable need to transform the current way plastic packaging end of life is managed in order to reduce significantly its environmental footprint,” said Laurent Auguste, SEVP of Veolia for Development, Innovation and Markets. “It will take a collaboration of a new kind between all the actors of the value chain. With this global partnership, Veolia and Unilever join forces in various geographies around the globe and, from the collection to the recycling, take a leadership role to redefine a responsible and sustainable future for packaging.”


Meanwhile, on the government front, The Guardian reports that the European Parliament has overwhelmingly backed a sweeping ban on single-use plastics in an effort to tackle pollution in seas, fields and waterways.

Under the proposal, “the top 10 plastic products that most often end up in the ocean” — including plastic straws, cotton swabs and disposable food serviceware — would be banned by 2021; and 90 percent of plastic bottles recycled by 2025.

But the Labour party says the plan’s success is contingent upon UK compliance after Brexit.

As Seb Dance, the party’s environment spokesman in the European Parliament, told The Guardian: “These new measures will slash the use of single-use plastics in the EU. With more than 700,000 plastic bottles littered in the UK every day, it would be negligent if the UK does not maintain these new targets if we leave the EU. Unless the UK mirrors EU action on plastics after Brexit, the Tories risk turning the UK into a dumping ground for cheap, non-recyclable plastics.”

The proposed legislation would put the EU at the forefront in the global fight against the growing plastic pollution crisis. A source from the European Commission told The Guardian they hope to have a vote in the European Council in November; if all goes well, it could be law by the end of the year.


Over in Britain, the public sector has been busy working to get its plastic footprint under wraps, most broadly with the signing on of 42 CPG companies to the UK Plastics Pact in April; The Guardian points out that the UK government, however, has yet to put forth legislation addressing the plastics issue, despite publication of more than 20 consultations on the matter since the general election last year. But the UK government confirmed on Monday that it will introduce a string of policies aimed at banning the sale and distribution of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds by 2020.

edie reports the launch of a consultation into how the government can best work with industry and businesses to develop alternatives to the items and ensure there is sufficient time to adapt to any phase-out, with businesses and members of the public given until 3 December to respond.

The consultation states that such a ban would come into effect between October 2019 and October 2020, with some uses of plastic straws set be exempt from the ban due to medical reasons.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove commented: “Today, we step up our efforts to turn the tide on plastic pollution and ensure we leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it. I commend retailers, bars and restaurants that have already committed to removing plastic straws and stirrers — but we recognise we need to do more.”

decline in plastic bags found in the seas around the UK has been linked to the introduction of charges for plastic bags, and the government hopes the proposed interventions for straws and stirrers will limit additions to the estimated eight million tonnes of plastic working their way into oceans annually.


While the continued momentum on bans and other scalable solutions is encouraging, a major overhaul of the plastics recycling industry itself, particularly in the UK, may be needed in order to put them into effect: As The Guardian also reported, local councils in England are incurring costs up to extra per year, as they struggle to deal with the continuing fallout from recent import bans imposed by countries such as China, which are no longer willing to take waste from the UK and other countries.

A survey by the Local Government Association (LGA) revealed nearly half of councils across the country who responded (52) say rising costs due to China’s ban are significantly impacting their ability to collect and recycle plastic; 14 say their recycling costs have increased by an average of £500,000 a year, in part because of rising processing charges per tonne.

Two-thirds of UK plastic packaging waste is exported, and the export industry was worth more than £50m in 2017.

“It’s clear that the ban by China on imported waste, which could soon be implemented by other countries, could have a marked impact on councils’ ability to recycle,” said Martin Tett, environment spokesman for the LGA. “It is essential that the government provide support to help councils offset the loss of income they face as a result of the ban. Councils want manufacturers to play their part to reduce the amount of material entering the environment which can’t be recycled.”

On top of that, The Guardian reported last week that the UK’s plastics recycling industry has been under investigation by the Environment Agency for allegations of corruption and fraud, including claims that exporters are falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste that might not exist; and that UK plastic waste is in fact not being recycled, instead being left to leak into rivers and oceans.


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