carbon footprint

Rethinking plastic packaging

We’re completely rethinking our approach to packaging to use less, better or no plastic.

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The challenge

Plastic is a very useful material for getting our products to consumers safely and efficiently. It’s often the lowest carbon footprint option compared to other materials. However, plastic is ending up in our environment. This has to stop.

Global research has shown that without action, twice as much virgin plastic will be created and three times more plastic could flow into our oceans by 2040. The plastic we produce is our responsibility. It’s clear we must reduce the amount of virgin plastic we use and completely rethink our approach to packaging. We must also keep plastic in use for as long as possible in a circular loop system. That means we need much better systems to collect, process and repeatedly reuse it.

We’re working hard to make progress in our business, but we can’t turn the tide on plastic pollution alone. To achieve a circular economy for plastics, we need strong commitments to be supported by systems-level change. Policy and regulation can play a critical role in tackling plastic waste, improving waste management infrastructure, and creating the right enabling environment for a circular economy. That’s why we’re calling for a global UN treaty with legally binding targets.

We also support policies like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), where companies pay for the collection of packaging – a key ask of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty. We believe that well-designed EPR schemes are a game-changer in tackling plastic pollution. They ensure money is invested back into waste management and packaging innovation, and hold businesses to account for the packaging choices they make. In 2021, we signed a public statement with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation calling for the implementation of well-designed EPR policies, recognising that, without EPR, packaging collection and recycling is unlikely to be meaningfully scaled. Read more about how we’re using our voice to fix the broken plastic system through our advocacy and partnerships.

Our mantra and framework: Less plastic. Better plastic. No plastic.

We’re making progress towards our ambitious plastics goals, guided by the following framework:

  • Less plastic: cutting down how much plastic we use in the first place through lighter designs, reuse and refill formats, and concentrated products which use less packaging.
  • Better plastic: making sure the plastic we use is designed to be recycled and that our products use recycled plastic. 
  • No plastic: using refill stations and formats to cut out new plastic completely and switching to alternative packaging materials such as paper, glass or aluminium.

Our actions on all three are key to delivering our virgin plastic reduction goal. Due to our step up on recycled plastic, we’ve reduced our virgin plastic footprint since 2019 by 18%.

Our plastic packaging footprint

We use a variety of different plastic packaging types for our products.

Our total plastic packaging footprint – including virgin and recycled plastic – is made up of 68% rigid packaging materials, with bottles, such as those used for fabric cleaning liquid, shampoo and body wash, being the biggest contributor. Flexible packaging makes up 31% of our footprint, with sealed flexible packs and pouches, such as laundry detergent bags, contributing the most. The remaining 1% is made up of tubes, for example, those used for toothpaste

Less plastic

Sometimes a complete rethink of how we design and package products is the best way to reduce plastic. Reducing the amount of material in a product by just a few grams can make a huge difference across an entire product range. Over the last decade we’ve already cut the weight of our packaging by a fifth through better and lighter designs.

We’re encouraging consumers to think of bottles of our cleaning and laundry products as a ‘bottle for life’ – just like a ‘bag for life’ they might use for shopping. For instance, our OMO laundry customers can use their 3-litre bottles for life.

Ultra concentrated products help us give consumers the same products but with much less plastic and smaller packaging. Comfort’s ultra concentrated laundry formulas offer a smaller dosage than any other product on the market. Our Love Beauty and Planet concentred shampoos and conditioners provide the same number of uses with half the plastic.

Our Beauty & Personal Care brands are challenging our throwaway culture too. Dove has started a beauty ‘refillution’ with its first-ever durable, stainless steel refillable deodorant case which is designed to be used for life.

Better plastic

Whenever we use plastic, we make sure we’re choosing better options – that means recycled and recyclable plastics. Currently, 53% of our packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable[c]. This is our actual recyclability rate, which is significantly less than the 72% of our packaging portfolio that is technically recyclable with existing technology. This gap is an industry-wide challenge and is primarily driven by a lack of collection and recycling infrastructure. We’re working with local governments and partners to close this gap, while we continue to deploy new materials and technologies.

We’re keeping plastics in the system, and out of the environment, by buying recycled plastic – sometimes called post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR). We’re ramping up how much recycled plastic we use. We’ve increased our use of recycled plastic to 22% of our total plastic footprint. This puts us on track to meet our commitment of at least 25% recycled plastic by 2025.

For instance, in 2021 Hellmann’s launched 100% recycled packaging in two-thirds of its markets, Knorr launched 100% recycled plastic bouillon tubs and lids in Europe, and Swedish Glace’s plant-based ice cream comes in recycled plastic tubs. Our Dove beauty brand uses 100% recycled plastic bottles in Europe and North America (where technically feasible) and 98% of its new refillable deodorant packaging in the US is made from recycled plastic. Our Love Beauty and Planet hair and skin care brand, is also working to incorporate recycled plastic in bottle caps and pumps.

There are plenty of technical challenges that we’re tackling in our better plastic journey. We’re developing new solutions, including chemical recycling for plastics which are hardest to recycle such as multi-layered and flexible packaging. We’re also aware that not all packaging that’s technically recyclable will actually be recycled. It’s technically possible to recycle around 72% of our product portfolio. However, what is actually recycled is lower because of the lack of infrastructure in communities.

Recycled plastic packaging also has to meet the same technical and safety standards as virgin plastic – standards which are higher for food packaging. Our Magnum ice cream brand worked with a supplier to overcome this challenge and launch recycled plastic ice cream tubs (see case study below).

In our Home Care division, our dilutable laundry detergents in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are made with recycled plastic and cost less than undiluted detergents.

Collecting and processing plastic

We can’t reach our ‘better plastic’ goals unless there’s enough high-quality recycled plastic available. There’s no shortage of plastic in the system – but there are some big challenges. Turning plastic waste and pollution into usable material relies on local collection and sorting facilities. There also needs to be technical innovation and new solutions to make collecting and reprocessing materials commercially viable.

Our business in India was one of the first to help collect and process more plastic than it sold, and we have roadmaps for achieving this in other markets including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, UK and US.

However, we have more work to do to scale up our collection efforts. This includes direct investments, such as in the US where we’ve made a $15 million investment in the Closed Loop Partners’ Leadership Fund to help improve recycling. Partnerships in waste collection and processing, building capacity by buying recycled plastics, and supporting extended producer-responsibility schemes will also be critical to drive progress.

We’re developing technology-led solutions too. For instance in Indonesia, we’re supporting urban communities to develop systems to collect and sell waste. A digital platform called ‘Google My Business’ enables consumers to find their nearest waste banks via Google Maps. In China we’re using artificial intelligence to increase recycling rates (see case study below). And together with partners in the UK and US, we’re working to tackle the challenge of black plastic, which typically can’t be detected by waste sorting and recycling machines (see case study below).

We also need to consider the impact of the plastic system on people’s livelihoods, as plastic is frequently collected by waste collectors in the informal economy, often working under dirty and dangerous conditions and without earning adequate wages or receiving social benefits. These individuals and their communities are an integral part of the plastics solution, because without them we will not be able to scale up our collection efforts to meet our goals for a waste-free world.

This issue is a priority for Unilever, and we’ve been busy developing a global framework on how we approach and include human rights in our plastic value chain, especially for informal waste collectors who are involved in collection and processing in a number of developing markets. We’ve also been working with our peers and expert NGOs to build a common approach across industry – most notably through the Fair Circularity Initiative, which we co-founded and launched in November 2022 alongside Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and the NGO Tearfund. Together, we have agreed to advance and adopt the initiative’s 10 Fair Circularity Principles and are now working towards implementing them.

In India, for example, we’re working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to create a circular economy for plastic and support the social inclusion of thousands of workers within the informal waste sector – also known as waste pickers and Safai Saathis (which translates to ‘invisible environmentalists’) – in recognition of the critical role they play.

Finding new solutions for flexible packaging

Plastic sachets allow low-income consumers to buy small amounts of products – often ones that provide hygiene or nutrition benefits like shampoo, food and toothpaste – that they would otherwise not be able to afford. However, flexible packaging, such as sachets and pouches, is particularly difficult to improve. In the long-term, we want to transition from using multi-layered sachets to mono-material sachets that are technically recyclable, and improve their collection and recyclability, particularly in our markets across Asia, where we sell more products in sachets. We’re learning there are no easy solutions. It’s a technical challenge, made more difficult by different local regulations on collection, sorting and recycling.

We’re developing new business models to reuse packaging and increase collection. For example, in the Philippines we have a sachet recovery programme to incentivise collection of post-consumer sachet waste in and around Manila. We’re also exploring how we can make sachets from single materials instead of multiple layers, making them easier to recycle. In Vietnam, we launched a trial for recyclable mono-material sachets of CLEAR shampoo. The recycled material is reused for items like refuse bags and containers, but with scale there’s potential to return it to our supply chain as recycled plastic. In Indonesia we’re testing solutions to eliminate the need for plastic by offering refill stations.

In Europe we’re members of CEFLEX, a consortium aiming to make flexible packaging in Europe circular by 2025. We contributed to an industry roadmap and guidelines exploring solutions.

We are committed to finding a solution for flexible packaging and we’re partnering with others to make progress.For instance in the UK we’ve partnered with other brands to launch the Flexible Plastic Fund to improve flexible plastic recycling rates. We’re working with Mars, Mondelēz, Nestlé, PepsiCo and UK retailers to incentivise the recycling of flexible packaging.

No plastic

No plastic means rethinking how we design products, developing whole new business models, and new shopping experiences for our consumers. It also means switching out plastic for alternative options such as metals, paper and glass.

The reuse-refill revolution

We want to help bring about a reuse-refill revolution. That’s why we’re working hard to find new ways for people to shop and use our products – for example, by buying one container and refilling it over and over again. Refills can be bought online or in a shop, or through in-store dispensing machines. A service could pick up empty containers, replenish them and deliver them back. Alternatively, people could return packaging at a store or drop-off point, as part of a deposit-return scheme (DRS).

We’ve been trialling a variety of reuse-refill models across our broad portfolio since 2018. We’ve conducted around 50 pilots across the world – testing and scaling different approaches, with the goal of making refilling our products as convenient, affordable and desirable as possible for consumers. Read more about the lessons that we’ve learnt along the way.

As we move beyond our initial ‘test and learn’ approach, we are working with partners, sharing our learnings and focusing our efforts to support an industry-wide shift towards reusable and refillable packaging at scale, in addition to scaling our own successful models. Collaboration is essential if we are going to get reuse-refill models working economically at scale.

Plastic-free packaging and products

We’re finding ways to remove plastic entirely from some of our products and packaging.

Our brands are using a range of alternative materials. Plastic-free packaging innovations include bamboo toothbrushes from Signal, fully recyclable paper food sachets for Colman’s, recyclable glass soup bottles from Knorr and paper ice cream tubs from Carte D’Or, Ben & Jerry’s and Wall’s. Persil laundry capsules now come in plastic-free boxes that can be fully recycled as paper in France. Dove’s single-bar soaps now come plastic-free and Seventh Generation also has a zero-plastic range on eCommerce channels in the US, using packaging made from steel.

We’re taking plastic out of our products too. Simple’s biodegradable facial cleansing wipes are made from sustainably sourced wood pulp and plant fibre.

How Office Owners are Achieving Net Zero Goals

Both tenants and investors are increasingly focusing on office building’s carbon footprints when considering new deals.

By: Patricia Kirk
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As the push to become carbon neutral accelerates globally, there is increasing pressure on office building owners to implement changes to accommodate those goals, including by making their buildings more energy efficient, using sustainable building materials, reducing waste and improving water systems. Some 105 big companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, Unilever, and BlackRock among others, have pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, with additional firms promising to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. More than 100 countries, including the U.S., have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050.

“A future where businesses are taxed on their carbon emissions could be close at hand,” said Drew Shula, founder and CEO of The Verdical Group, a Los Angeles-based green-building consulting firm.

California has already passed legislation requiring new and significantly renovated commercial buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. Additionally, New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act (CMA) includes Local Law 97, which impacts all buildings over 25,000 sq. ft. and calculates carbon intensity for buildings on a per square foot basis, assigning limits to intensity beginning in 2024. Buildings that exceed that limit will be fined $268 per ton of carbon, notes Meadow Hackett, manager for sustainability and KPI services at consulting firm Deloitte.

She notes that many office REITs are planning carbon neutrality strategies to avoid penalties at their New York City properties, and companies are making capital allocation decisions around energy efficiency based on penalty avoidance.

Green building experts acknowledge that a net zero mandate would present a challenge for office building owners/investors, but note that it may not be as daunting as they might perceive.

“Any existing building’s carbon emissions can be reduced, and the first step is to understand its current level of performance,” says Elizabeth Beardsley, senior policy counsel for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). She adds that this requires metering and reviewing utility bills and any other available building performance data that can help identify areas in need of increased operational efficiency and performance.

Once this assessment is completed, existing building owners and operators should develop a strategic action plan aimed at reducing annual building greenhouse gas emissions, Beardsley says. “The action plan can help owners to develop an ‘optimal path’ forward via the evaluation of alternative scenarios to assess opportunities for system upgrades, efficiency improvements, renewable energy generation and/or procurement, and calculate associated costs for each scenario.”

According to Rielle Green, manager of energy & sustainability with CBRE Property Management, which manages 2.7 billion sq. ft. of commercial real estate globally, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for getting to net zero. “Every property is uniquely built with different operating systems and located in different areas with different climates.”

CBRE property managers work with clients to determine which solutions make sense, which may include installing solar panels to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption, smart building technology to monitor energy usage, LED lighting or green roofs.

Beardsley adds that owners could lower a building’s carbon footprint by encouraging tenants to commute by walking, biking, public transport, ride-sharing and carpools. This might involve providing a shared bicycle system or membership in a micro-mobility fleet; contributions for public transportation passes; car-sharing memberships; and on-site electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

Beardsley also notes that conservation and recycling are other important elements for reducing a building’s carbon footprint. “Reducing a building’s water consumption reduces associated energy loads for water provision and wastewater management, as potable water treatment, distribution and use are highly energy-intensive,” she says. 

She offers case studies to illustrate how existing buildings achieved LEED Zero certifications.

The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, for example, began reducing the footprint of its 17-story, 55-year-old, all-electric John Ferro Building in 2013 with a suite of energy efficiency measures, including lighting retrofits, chiller and fan system upgrades that earned the building’s initial LEED certification in 2015. The following year, the building, which houses LADWP’s 11,000 employees, recertified LEED Gold and in September 2019, it became the first building in California to achieve LEED Net Zero Energy.

Another example is the historic headquarters of Entegrity Partners, a sustainability and energy services company specializing in the implementation of energy conservation and renewable energy projects, which became the first LEED Zero-certified project in the U.S. in 2019 and the second in the world. The building, which achieved LEED Platinum for New Construction, was also awarded Zero Energy certification by the International Living Future Institute.

Entegrity began devising a plan to retrofit its 13,342-sq. ft. Darragh Building to net zero energy in 2016. Initial strategies employed included all-LED lighting, dynamic self-tinting glass, operable windows and doors for natural ventilation in the summertime, and occupancy sensors. The renovation also used locally-sourced materials when possible; preserved daylighting; and installed lighting controls, high-efficiency plumbing fixtures, and native landscaping.

Office buildings with high performing environmental improvements also command a rent premium, according to Beardsley, and trade at higher values than traditional buildings because they offer savings in operational costs. She cites research that indicates tenant were willing to pay $0.75 per sq. ft. for space in a LEED-certified office building compared to a non-LEED certified one.

Additionally, the U.S General Services Administration (GSA) released a 2018 study on the impact of high-performance buildings that quantified their benefits compared to their legacy building counterparts in the GSA’s portfolio. The study found that the upgraded buildings delivered greater cost savings and tenant satisfaction were deemed, therefore, a less risky investment than traditional buildings.

Shula suggests that Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, is a great example of this preference for more environmentally sustainable building. The firm committed to net zero for its own operations and is making being carbon neutral the central focus for its more than $8 trillion in assets under management.

Hackett, notes that sustainable swaps and building retrofits are already common in existing buildings to meet carbon neutrality goals. Landlords are deploying more efficient technology, such as occupancy light sensors, LED lighting, and power management software to control HVAC systems.

“Investors are more in tune with how their buildings are performing when it comes to sustainability and ESG today than a decade ago,” adds Green. She notes that sustainability has definitely become a selling point because potential tenants want to know how their buildings are performing in comparison to other buildings in the market.

Meanwhile, “[Institutional] investors are placing ESG, and climate change in particular, central to their investment strategies.”

Hackett notes, for example, that members of Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance, which represent roughly $5 trillion in assets under management, have pledged to transition their investment portfolios to net zero emissions by 2050.

The cost for upgrading existing buildings to achieve net zero depends on many factors, but the building’s age and relative inefficiency are key determinants, Beardsley says. She also notes that the building’s size, shape, and location may limit its capacity to generate on-site renewable energy.

However, “You don’t need to get to zero carbon all at once,” says Shula. “Create a plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, then work backward to today to determine what steps to take first.”

For example, as building equipment reaches end-of-life, it should be replaced with more efficient, all-electric equipment and appliances to enable the reduction of the carbon footprint, he notes.

Getting ground-up buildings to net zero, on the other hand, adds a cost premium of zero to 1 percent when designed and developed as a high-performance building from the start, according to a 2019 USGBC report, The study also noted that operational savings recoup any incremental costs for getting to net zero in a relatively short time, with return on investment for both existing and new office buildings beginning in as little as a year.

Emma Hughes, a LEED project manager with USGBC, notes that with today’s tools, technology and knowledge all new buildings can be designed and constructed to highly efficient standards and achieve net zero energy during the construction process via integration of renewable energy generation and/or procurement.

We don’t need more doomsday climate predictions. We need solutions — like this one.

By David Von Drehle
View the original article here.

High waters flood Market and Water Streets as Hurricane Florence comes ashore in Wilmington, N.C., on Friday.

High waters flood Market and Water Streets as Hurricane Florence comes ashore in Wilmington, N.C., on Friday.

Like most people (according to polls), I believe greenhouse gases trap heat — a fact easily proved by experiments simple enough to perform at home. More greenhouse gases will trap more heat. And when temperatures rise on Earth, they impact the entire ecosystem.

The case for limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is all right there. Most people get it. Yet many of our most passionate citizens on this topic seem to believe that only panic will produce results. In trying to stimulate alarm, however, they often wind up fortifying the dwindling but stubborn cadre of skeptics.

Case in point: Hurricane Florence. As the cyclone worked its way up the Saffir-Simpson scale of storm strength, I braced for the inevitable pronouncements that climate change is making our storms worse, with Florence as Exhibit A. Then the incredible complexity of climate kicked in. The cyclone went to pieces (as most of them, thankfully, do) and staggered ashore as a very wet and dangerous Category 1 storm. Power was knocked out, homes were flooded, trees were snapped or torn up by the roots. An unpleasant, unwelcome visitor, but hardly unprecedented.

Climate activists should get out of the prediction business, because climate is too complex to be reduced to a single factor. The strongest storm to hit the United States continues to be the Labor Day hurricane of — wait for it — 1935, which wiped out entire towns in the Florida Keys. Runner-up: Camille in 1969. Billions and billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide have been pumped into the atmosphere since those storms raged.

Looking backward rather than ahead, however, a tentative case, a hypothesis, could be ventured that we are in fact seeing greater frequency of strong storms. Since the introduction of weather satellites in the 1960s made comprehensive tracking possible, meteorologists have calculated the total energy of Atlantic cyclones each year. All seven seasons of greatest hurricane energy have come since 1995. Even so, the years from 2013 through 2015 were unusually calm.

But debating over doomsdays only empowers the climate skeptics, because it takes a topic of consensus and puts it in the realm of dispute. People don’t need more fear of climate change. They need more hope for solutions. And one single step could galvanize the awesome power of America’s economy toward answers: cap and trade.

Capping total carbon dioxide emissions nationwide and allowing producers to trade emission permits are not an intrusion on the free market, as some conservatives have complained of the trailblazing program underway in California. Instead, cap and trade empowers the market. As Adam Smith explained, the wealth-creating genius of a free market stems from its ability to efficiently gather vast stores of data about people’s needs and wants and convey that information to producers through the simple signal of what people are willing to pay. Good old supply and demand.

Carbon emissions impose social costs. But most of the U.S. economy is blind to that information. Without an overall cap on emissions, the market thinks that supply — in this case, the ability to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — is infinite and thus the cost of emitting is zero. Cap and trade switches on a price signal, which in turn focuses the creativity, innovation and efficiency of the entire economy on cutting emissions without sacrificing quality of life. The free market does what it does best (more Adam Smith): lowers production costs while maintaining and enhancing the appeal of its products.

Opponents of cap and trade say the idea has failed in Europe, but the hiccups in that market are attributable to weakness of the European Union — Brussels set its cap too high — and the slow European economy. A more revealing case comes from here at home. In 1995, the United States capped sulfur dioxide emissions (the primary cause of acid rain) and issued tradable permits. By 2010, according to one gimlet-eyed assessment, emissions were down nearly 70 percent and health-care costs were reduced by as much as $100 billion.

Admittedly, carbon emissions are a more complex market than sulfur emissions. Everyone has a carbon footprint, while sulfur dioxide is mainly a byproduct of coal-burning power plants. But there are many ubiquitous commodities in our lives: virtually everyone uses steel, paper, electricity, water, wheat and so on. Somehow, the market manages to put a price on all of them and efficiently collect those costs from willing consumers.

When carbon-dioxide emissions reflect what most of us agree to be their true costs, capitalists throughout the economy will turn their resources to cutting those costs. They will discover greater efficiencies. They will invest in alternative energy. They will sink money into inventions and technologies undreamed of today. They will move with speed and agility no government bureaucracy can match.

You might say I’m predicting a Category 5 storm of hope. But this is the U.S. economy I’m talking about; its potential power is never in doubt.