July 1, 2022
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Unilever vowed to scrap polluting plastic packets, then fought to keep them

Unilever vowed to scrap polluting plastic packets, then fought to keep them

COLOMBO — Two years in the past, Unilever plc Chief Government Alan Jope mentioned his firm would do away with the tiny plastic packets it makes use of to promote single servings of shampoo, toothpaste, and different fundamentals due to the widespread air pollution this packaging creates. 

These palm-sized pouches, referred to as sachets, are generally related to ketchup or cosmetics samples in rich nations. However they’ve exploded throughout the growing world the place they’re used to promote all the things from laundry detergent to seasoning and snacks to low-income households. 

They’ve additionally helped gas a world waste disaster. Product of layers of plastic and aluminum, sachets are practically inconceivable to recycle and aren’t biodegradable. They’re littering neighborhoods, jamming rubbish dumps, choking waterways and harming wild creatures. But whilst Unilever executives have publicly decried the environmental hurt completed by this packaging, the multinational has labored to undercut legal guidelines geared toward eliminating sachets in not less than three Asian nations, Reuters has realized. 

In Sri Lanka, the corporate pressed the federal government to rethink a proposed sachet ban, then tried to maneuver round it as soon as laws have been imposed, a senior environmental official informed Reuters. In India and the Philippines, Unilever lobbied in opposition to proposed sachet bans that have been later dropped by lawmakers, sources immediately concerned mentioned. 

London-based Unilever declined to touch upon the corporate’s lobbying actions in these markets and mentioned it adheres to Sri Lankan legislation. A spokesperson mentioned the agency is “phasing out” multilayered sachets through the use of a wide range of potential fixes, together with product refill techniques, new recycling expertise and packaging materials that’s simpler to recycle. 

Unilever, the maker of tons of of family manufacturers together with Dove cleaning soap, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, first marketed plastic sachets on a mass scale in India within the Eighties. The buyer large stays among the many greatest customers of this packaging, and different firms have adopted swimsuit. Now, 855 billion plastic sachets are offered yearly industry-wide, sufficient to cowl your complete floor of Earth, in accordance to A Plastic Planet, a London-based environmental group. 

Lately, Unilever has develop into a vocal critic of sachets. 

The multilayered design of the packages is “evil because you cannot recycle it,” Hanneke Faber, Unilever’s President for International Meals & Refreshments, mentioned in a 2019 investor presentation. 

At an internet plastic sustainability occasion in July 2020, Mr. Jope went additional. 

“We have to get rid of them,” Mr. Jope mentioned in response to a query about how utilizing sachets match into Unilever’s said plans to cut back plastic air pollution. “It’s pretty much impossible to mechanically recycle and so it’s got no real value.” 

Eight months later, the agency acquired its probability. Sri Lanka final yr carried out new laws to part out sachets in an effort to stem a tide of plastic waste despoiling seashores, bleaching coral reefs and endangering wildlife on this island nation within the Indian Ocean. 

However Unilever continued to promote tiny 6 milliliter (ml) single-portion sachets of shampoo and hair conditioner in Sri Lanka, regardless of the brand new ban on plastic sachets sized 20 ml or smaller, in accordance to the nation’s Ministry of Surroundings and two native plastic air pollution charities. 

Sachets offered in native retailers are displayed in sheets caught along with tear-away seams, making it straightforward for patrons to detach a single portion. To sidestep the prohibition, the three sources mentioned, Unilever relabeled its 6 ml sachets to point out they shouldn’t be offered individually, somewhat in four-packs as one 24 ml unit. 

“Unilever tried to deceive us,” Anil Jasinghe, secretary of Sri Lanka’s Surroundings Ministry, informed Reuters from his workplace in Colombo, the nation’s largest metro space with a inhabitants of greater than 2.3 million residents. 

Mr. Jasinghe mentioned his ministry threatened authorized motion, and that “to their credit” Unilever rapidly stopped promoting 6 ml sachets. Nonetheless, the hard-fought measure utilized solely to the smallest sizes. Tens of millions of bigger sachets proceed to be offered in Sri Lanka each day. 

In a press release to Reuters, Unilever mentioned it was totally compliant with Sri Lanka’s laws. 


Mr. Jasinghe mentioned that episode capped months of efforts by Unilever to upend the proposed laws. When Sri Lanka was debating the measure in 2020 — the identical yr Mr. Jope declared sachets to be an environmental scourge – the multinational gave two shows to officers on the surroundings ministry discouraging the federal government from phasing them out, Mr. Jasinghe recalled. 

“Unilever approached us and said: ‘Don’t do this, sachets are a poor man’s commodity.’ We said: ‘Yes, you have addicted the poor man to sachets. Now they have no choice.’” 

Unilever didn’t reply to questions on Mr. Jasinghe’s assertions. 

The corporate, which makes 58% of its income from rising markets, has additionally lobbied in opposition to proposed bans on plastic sachets in India and the Philippines up to now few years, in accordance to interviews with a dozen individuals concerned, together with authorities officers, {industry} sources and environmentalists. 

Sachet bans have been later dropped by lawmakers in India and the Philippines, which collectively account for greater than 10% of Unilever’s international gross sales. Reuters couldn’t decide if Unilever’s lobbying influenced the end result. 

Unilever didn’t reply to questions concerning the thwarted laws. 

The main points of Unilever’s campaigns to derail single-use sachet bans, reported for the primary time by Reuters, come as Mr. Jope promotes the $113-billion firm as a inexperienced champion which he says is on a journey to develop into the world chief in sustainable enterprise. 

A part of its efforts have targeted on methods to recycle or cut back single-use plastic packaging. 

Reuters discovered that 5 such applications launched by Unilever during the last decade in India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka — together with novel recycling expertise and refill merchandising machines — have been dropped or not progressed past the pilot stage. 

In response to Reuters’ questions on these failures, Unilever mentioned in a press release that ending the usage of multilayered plastic sachets was “a complex technical challenge, with no quick fixes.” 

The corporate wouldn’t disclose what number of sachets it sells at present or whether or not its initiatives have decreased their use. In a promotional video in 2012, Unilever mentioned it sells 40 billion plastic sachets a yr. 

Nestle SA and The Procter & Gamble Firm, Unilever’s rivals who’re additionally main purveyors of merchandise packaged in sachets, declined to reply questions on what number of sachets they promote. 

Prior to the arrival of sachets, many retailers in growing nations would measure out tiny parts of sugar, espresso and different fundamentals on the market to poor clients who’d carry their very own containers, in accordance to Von Hernandez, international coordinator of Break Free From Plastic, a coalition of greater than 2,000 environmental teams targeted on plastic air pollution. He mentioned this type of shopping for — referred to as “tingi” tradition within the Philippines — is widespread all through Asia. Via the event of sachets, Mr. Hernandez mentioned large manufacturers “appropriated it with plastic packaging to foster and promote loyalty to their products.” 


Confronted with a wave of plastic bans and polluter-pays legal guidelines globally, shopper manufacturers and plastic makers have launched dozens of voluntary initiatives during the last decade which they are saying will assist cut back plastic waste. But this air pollution will get worse yearly. 

The United Nations in March accepted an settlement to draw up the world’s first-ever plastics treaty, which might embody capping plastic manufacturing, imposing recycling targets and making shopper items firms pay to gather this trash. 

Solely 9% of all of the plastic ever made has been recycled, partly as a result of most plastic packaging is designed to be used simply as soon as, in accordance to a landmark 2017 research printed within the journal Science Advances. 

Unilever, which was a principal accomplice of COP26, the United Nations local weather change convention held in Glasgow final yr, has in recent times promoted itself as an {industry} standout on sustainability. That declare has elicited skeptical responses from a number of environmental teams. 

Criticism has additionally come from one in all its greatest shareholders: Fundsmith LLP, a British fund supervisor. On this yr’s annual letter to buyers, Fundsmith CEO Terry Smith in January mentioned Unilever had “clearly lost the plot” over its inexperienced insurance policies and was “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.” He didn’t elaborate. 

Mr. Smith and Unilever declined a request to touch upon the letter. 

Plastic sachets are particularly prevalent in Asian nations that contribute probably the most to ocean plastic air pollution, making them a lightning rod for environmental teams looking for more durable legal guidelines on the most important customers of single-use plastic packaging. 

At Unilever’s annual basic assembly on Could 4, Mr. Jope was harangued concerning the agency’s continued use of sachets by London-headquartered nonprofit ClientEarth, which had briefly borrowed shares from an activist investor so as to voice its considerations on the high-profile occasion. 

Mr. Jope responded by saying Unilever was “determined to find a solution” to finish sachet waste whereas additionally persevering with to serve low-income customers. 


Plastic sachets are designed to be low-cost and sturdy, in order that they pile up in landfills, clog sewers and spill out from city waterways into the ocean, the place animals typically mistake them for meals. 

Sri Lanka’s crackdown has not eradicated this waste. Its ban excludes bigger sachets in addition to these containing meals or drugs. In Colombo, fisherman Lalith Prasanna pointed throughout a seaside to surf awash with these packets, together with sachets of Unilever’s Sunsilk shampoo and Surf laundry detergent. 

“I have seen fish with plastic inside their bodies,” Mr. Prasanna mentioned. He mentioned sachets have littered prawn breeding grounds, decreasing catches. 

Land creatures, too, are struggling, mentioned Nihal Pushpakumara, a wildlife veterinarian primarily based within the Amapara area, 130 miles east of Colombo. He mentioned round 20 elephants have died during the last eight years after consuming plastic from an open landfill there, autopsies on these giants have revealed. 

“They eat all of those sachets” and different plastic rubbish, Mr. Pushpakumara informed Reuters. “They fill their tummies, then they can’t eat their usual diet so they get weaker and weaker, day by day, and die.” 

Nonetheless, the partial ban on sachets in Sri Lanka has decreased air pollution, in accordance to The Pearl Protectors, an unbiased marine safety group primarily based in Colombo that conducts ocean and seaside cleanups. It mentioned its volunteers have reported accumulating fewer sachets than earlier than the ban, however had not quantified or documented the precise affect. 

“If this is what a ban on some sachets in one country can do, imagine how the environment could change if companies like Unilever got rid of sachets,” mentioned Muditha Katuwawala, coordinator at The Pearl Protectors. 

Unilever informed Reuters that regardless of the environmental downsides of sachets, they supply the poor with entry to cleansing merchandise and meals in small sizes that match their budgets. 


Some low-income customers dispute that declare. 

In Crow Island, a suburb of Colombo the place barefoot kids play in alleyways strewn with used sachets, Fathima Insana, 26, informed Reuters that Sri Lanka’s ban on the smallest packets had led to value financial savings for her family, which incorporates her husband, toddler son and fogeys. 

She mentioned she used to buy a 6 ml sachet of Unilever’s Sunsilk shampoo each day for 8 rupees ($0.02), however now saves up to purchase a 180 ml recyclable bottle for 190 rupees. That very same 6 ml portion works out to be 25% cheaper, and the larger container lasts her household a month. “A sachet is just for one day,” she mentioned. 

Unilever mentioned in a press release it was working with native governments in nations like Sri Lanka to enhance plastic waste assortment and disposal. It mentioned these efforts embody offering merchandising machines the place clients can refill reusable bottles with merchandise comparable to liquid dish cleaning soap and laundry detergent. It could not disclose what number of nations it was working with or what number of machines it had deployed. 

A few of Unilever’s refill machines in Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines have been positioned in upscale malls or supermarkets, removed from the poor communities most depending on sachets, Reuters discovered. 

In Sri Lanka, Reuters might find just one Unilever refill merchandising machine, positioned behind a Cargills grocery store in Colombo. 

Unilever declined to touch upon its Sri Lanka refill program. 

The corporate informed Reuters it had launched six refill stations in Mumbai, India, in 2021 and 2022 to promote merchandise like dishwashing liquid in refillable bottles. At a Reliance SMART grocery store in a middle-class neighborhood, a Unilever worker overseeing a kind of refill stations informed Reuters they promote solely round 10 bottles’ value of merchandise a day. 

Unilever’s Mr. Jope mentioned in a tweet on July 31, 2019 — six months after he turned CEO — that the corporate was methods to assist individuals purchase one container to be used “over and over again.”  

Together with the hashtag #ReuseRevolution, the submit linked to a press launch touting efforts comparable to refill merchandising machines deliberate for the Philippines to dispense shampoo and hair conditioner. 

Reuters visited three areas in metro Manila the place Unilever publicly launched refill stations in 2019. The items have been gone. Workers in two of the department stores the place the stations have been positioned mentioned they have been taken away by Unilever inside a month. 

Unilever declined to remark. 


The Philippines, a sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago of greater than 7,600 islands and 110 million individuals, has been inundated with rubbish as sachets have proliferated. 

A staggering 163 million sachets are used there each day, many swept out to sea by garbage-strewn rivers flowing by way of teeming cities like Manila, in accordance to a 2019 research by the International Alliance for Incinerator Options, an environmental group. 

In August final yr, the nation’s Home of Representatives handed a invoice that will part out the usage of many single-use plastic objects, together with Styrofoam cups, plastic cutlery and sachets. 

The next month, the invoice moved to the Senate to be reconciled with different proposed plastic laws. Helming that effort was Cynthia Villar, the influential chairperson of the Senate Committee on the Surroundings and a member of a political household dynasty within the Philippines. 

Ms. Villar and Unilever have a historical past of working collectively on plastic waste. 

The senator’s anti-poverty charity, Villar SIPAG Basis, in 2017 introduced a partnership with Unilever wherein the corporate would practice homemakers and the unemployed to make purses from plastic litter. That very same yr, Ms. Villar delivered the keynote tackle on the launch of Surf Misis Walastik, an area Unilever mission to gather sachets and different plastic waste to be used as gas and transformed into chairs for colleges. 

Unilever immediately lobbied Villar final yr to focus the federal government’s plastic regulation on cleansing up sachets somewhat than banning them, two individuals concerned within the talks mentioned. 

In January, Ms. Villar introduced that the Senate had handed the Prolonged Producer Duty Act, which requires shopper manufacturers to contribute to the price of accumulating and disposing of plastic waste, incentivized by tax breaks. The proposed phaseout of single-use plastic was not included within the remaining laws. 

Ms. Villar informed Reuters the legislation was “the compromise alternative” and that it might assist to cut back packaging waste and improve recycling. She and Unilever didn’t reply to questions on their charitable partnerships or the corporate’s alleged lobbying of the senator concerning the proposed sachet ban. 

The measure was ratified by Congress on Could 26 and now wants the signature of the nation’s president to come into power. President Rodrigo Duterte, who leaves workplace on June 30 when his time period expires, has but to obtain the invoice and can evaluation it when it’s submitted, deputy spokesperson Kris Ablan mentioned in response to Reuters’ questions. President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. didn’t reply to requests for remark. 

The Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Supplies Sustainability, a shopper items foyer group wherein Unilever is a member, publicly mentioned it supported this model of the legislation. 

The laws requires fines on firms that fail to hit targets to clear up plastic waste. However environmental teams say the penalties are too small to fear large shopper manufacturers. They vary from P5 million ($92,000) to P20 million ($369,000) for serial offenders. Unilever posted international income of 52 billion euros ($55 billion) final yr. 

Activists have additionally raised considerations that the laws doesn’t mandate recycling for the plastic waste that’s collected. The legislation permits this rubbish to be used as gas in waste-to-energy crops and cement kilns, a observe inexperienced activists say will improve carbon dioxide and poisonous emissions. 

“This will only fuel the climate crisis,” mentioned Coleen Salamat, who campaigns in opposition to plastic waste at Ecowaste Coalition, an environmental group primarily based in larger Manila. “This bill is … another band-aid solution without clear targets on phasing out single-use plastics.” 

In an investigation final yr, Reuters revealed plans by Unilever, Nestle, and different large manufacturers to burn plastic waste in cement kilns as a part of their public pledges to take away trash from the surroundings. Ecologists say the observe pollutes the air and undercuts efforts to increase recycling charges. 


In India, Unilever has been a part of {industry} teams which have raised considerations in recent times over proposals to ban sachets and different multilayered plastic packaging, in accordance to two individuals with data of the matter. 

India is Unilever’s second-largest market globally after the US. The nation in 2016 introduced new guidelines proposing to part out such packaging inside two years. 

These guidelines have been amended in 2018 to exempt packaging that could possibly be “recovered” for vitality. It’s a suggestion that arose from a gathering between {industry} associations and representatives of India’s Ministry of Surroundings, Forest and Local weather Change in late 2017, minutes from the assembly present. 

That change rendered the ban “toothless” as a result of all plastic, which is derived from oil and gasoline, will be burned as gas, mentioned Dharmesh Shah of the Authorized Initiative for Forest and Surroundings, a New Delhi-based nonprofit. One other Indian proposal to ban some sachets was shelved in 2019 following {industry} opposition, Reuters reported on the time. 

India’s surroundings ministry didn’t reply to a request for remark about its place on sachets or its conferences with Unilever and {industry} teams. 

Unilever mentioned in a press release that it was working with the Indian authorities to cut back plastic waste, together with funding waste cleanups and applications to educate faculty kids about recycling. The corporate, which reported income of 5.6 billion euros ($5.9 billion) final yr in India, declined to say how a lot it spends on its plastic waste-reduction initiatives or to state its place on India’s plastic waste guidelines. 

In 2012, Unilever mentioned in a promotional video it had discovered a brand new high-tech answer for its sachet waste in India. Unilever proposed utilizing a super-heating course of referred to as pyrolysis, additionally recognized within the {industry} as “chemical recycling,” to convert sachets into gas. 

Offcuts and misprints of latest Unilever sachets have been despatched to a waste-to-fuel facility in Chennai owned by an organization named MK Aromatics, the Indian accomplice within the mission. There they have been heated and condensed into oil, together with different municipal waste, and then offered again to Unilever to be used as gas for one in all its close by factories, in accordance to Mahesh Service provider, managing director of MK Aromatics. 

Service provider informed Reuters the association with Unilever started in 2012 however stopped two years later after the corporate declined to spend money on his facility. 

Unilever informed Reuters it stopped working with MK Aromatics due to unspecified security considerations. Unilever declined to elaborate. 

MK Aromatics’ Service provider mentioned its facility was legally compliant and “very safe.” 

The failure of that mission is a part of an even bigger pattern. Reuters revealed final yr that dozens of chemical recycling initiatives worldwide promoted by the plastics {industry} and shopper items corporations have both closed down or stalled on the pilot stage during the last decade as a result of they weren’t commercially viable, together with a Unilever mission in Indonesia. 

At Unilever’s annual basic assembly this Could, Mr. Jope mentioned the corporate nonetheless believed in chemical recycling. 

“We just haven’t cracked that particular solution yet,” he mentioned. — Joe Brock and John Geddie/Reuters

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