Innovations and partnerships have helped Unilever pioneer the use of food-grade recycled plastics in packaging for The Vegetarian Butcher, Magnum and Hellmann’s. But to close the loop on plastic, the company needs legislative standards that makes recycled plastic in food packs commonplace.
Unilever states, “Plastic plays a significant role in preventing food waste. It has an exceptional ability to keep out air, moisture and bacteria that can cause products to go off before they’re cooked or eaten. And it’s often the most efficient and cost-effective material to package food for transportation and storage.”
In a recent survey by Boston Consulting Group of 15,000 people globally, 83% of millennial and Gen Z consumers said they’d be willing to pay more for products that came in sustainable packaging.
This demand has triggered a new ecosystem of alternative packaging materials and new business models, including the use of recycled and recyclable plastic graded especially for food products to ensure safety.
To respond to consumer demand and tackle plastic waste, Unilever’s R&D teams are working to develop solutions to keep plastics in the circular economy alongside finding new materials to replace virgin single-use plastic.
Closing the loop on plastic packaging waste
A circular economy only works if the food packaging, after its intended use, returns into the economy for use as food packaging again. Unilever mentions, “However, there is currently no uniform legislative framework in place for the use of recycled plastics in food packaging. So, while demand for recycled plastic is set to grow, we need clear and consistent legislation with industry support to scale up and supply food-grade recycled plastic.”
Using mechanical and advanced recycling to increase supply
“Presently, there is not enough supply of recycled plastics to meet the needs for use as food packaging,” says F&R Packaging Capability Director Sanjeev Das.
There’s limited availability of food-grade recycled plastics, especially food-grade recycled polypropylene (rPP) and polyethylene (rPE) plastics which account for 75% of the plastics used in Unilever’s food packaging.
This has seen the company’s Foods and Refreshment R&D team work to create sustainable sources using two complementary routes.
The first is mechanical recycling which sees items sorted according to their material. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic used to make plastic bottles is sorted into one recycling stream, polyethylene (PE) used to make plastic bags into another.
Once separated, they’re cleaned and transformed into recycled raw material to make new items. According to the company, all Unilever’s Hellmann’s plastics bottles and jars in the US and Canada are made from 100% recycled and recyclable plastic that’s been recovered this way.
The second way Unilever is increasing the supply of recycled plastic is through advanced recycling. This sees mixed plastic waste broken down into its fundamental building blocks and reconstructed to make new plastic packaging that’s especially suitable for food-grade packaging.
Working with its partner SABIC, Unilever uses this technology to provide it with ready access to food-grade recycled polypropylene plastic to make its 30 million Magnum pint tubs sold throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
To scale up, Unilever needs common policies and legislation
As it stands, however, Unilever has the technology but not the common standards and scale.
“To aid the circular transformation of food packaging, there is an urgent need for alignment on goals and related policies. This would enable further investments in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure and technologies, including mechanical and advanced recycling,” says Das.
It’s only with a common policy framework and industry collaboration that Unilever can begin to make real progress in creating sustainable supplies of food-grade recycled plastic and the scale to meet increasing demand. “The more others come on board and seek to tackle this together, the bigger the impact we can have to help us achieve our vision of a waste-free world.”
The Vegetarian Butcher’s Raw Burger are made from 100% recycled plastic and designed for reuse in the circular economy
In 2021, The Vegetarian Butcher launched a new plant-based raw burger that looks and cooks like its meat counterpart. With the circular economy front of mind, the team decided to look at creating packaging that consumers would instantly recognise, while also designing for recycling.
The result was a chilled retail tray that looks no different to consumers but is made of 100% recycled plastic. Its success has meant that since the middle of 2021, The Vegetarian Butcher’s entire range of chilled products has been packaged using recycled PET (rPET).
But the innovation in packaging doesn’t stop there. The R&D team is now aiming to make all parts of the product packaging recyclable without compromises to shelf life or to the prevention of food waste.
“Our next project for the chilled portfolio is to find a recyclable, monomaterial top film that seals the packaging. We are currently in the process of extensively testing options and will launch when we've found the right solution that achieves the same level of food protection,” says Packaging Innovation lead Dorcas Akintola.