With the CreaSolv facility now fully operational, Unilever is currently working to iron out any issues linked to technical and commercial viability. Once Unilever has done that, it will look to commercialise the process and make the technology open source.
Closing the loop
Single-use plastic sachets allow low-income consumers in developing countries to buy small amounts of quality products that would otherwise be unaffordable to them. These products tend to provide hygiene or nutrition benefits.
The problem is, these multi-layer flexible sachets are not currently recycled and have little or no economic value, so they leak into the environment.
Unilever’s CreaSolv plant is designed to recover polyethylene (PE), which accounts for more than 60% of the layers. It use this to produce high-quality polymers, which are then made into new sachets.
The process allows Unilever to recover six kilos of pure polymers using the same energy as it would take to produce one kilo of virgin polymer. This creates a circular economy approach while, at the same time, reducing the environmental footprint of plastic sachets.
The facility is currently processing around three tonnes of discarded sachets per day. These sachets are a mix of Unilever’s and those of our competitors. And we are making the resin we produce available for any company to use.
As Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer, David Blanchard, says: “Our aim is to develop a closed-loop system for sachets, so we can use them in future packaging. This will allow us to continue to provide consumers with the price and convenience of sachets, while tackling the environmental issues associated with their use.
“This is an exciting step in our efforts to develop new business models and solutions that will reduce our use of single-use plastics, and help make the packaging industry as a whole more sustainable.”
“By attaching a value to the waste material, ensuring it is collected and managed responsibly, we will help prevent ocean plastic leakage,” David Blanchard, Chief R&D Officer, Unilever.
Commercialising means collaborating
Having proved the technology, Unilever is now starting discussions with investors and other interested parties to develop a commercial plant capable of processing up to 30 tonnes of material a day.
To support that, the company need to substantially increase the volume of flexible plastics it collect. It’s ambition is to capture 1,500 tonnes in 2019 and around 5,000 tonnes in 2020.
This means working with governments and industry to develop collection infrastructure, which includes introducing separation in households so that wet and dry waste can be segregated.
One example of where Unilever is already doing this is its Community Waste Bank Programme which empowers communities to manage domestic waste. So far, it has helped communities in 18 cities set up over 2,600 local projects where 350,000 members collect inorganic waste and sell it based on its value. In 2017, they collected over 6,000 tonnes of packaging waste, worth 8.4 billion Indonesian rupiahs.
Unilever is now leveraging this network to recover sachets. For instance, it has started a flexible waste pilot in East Java to collect pouches, and it is creating an end-to-end solution by sending this material to our CreaSolv plant for recycling.
To ensure Unilever can access high volumes of quality materials, it is attaching a value to the sachets and buying them for a market price from intermediaries and informal waste collectors. To date the company has collected over 450 tonnes and we are working hard to expand the network.
To support and scale our own efforts, Unilever has signed a collaboration agreement with resource management company Veolia, which includes setting up used packaging collection solutions, adding recycling capacity, and developing new processes and business models. This work will start in Asia.
Open source for scale
In the long term, Unilever will make CreaSolv technology open source so that others, including investors and our competitors, can use it. To achieve that ambition, we need governments to recognise and support the development of hybrid recycling.
David concludes: “Together, we can scale CreaSolv across South-East Asia and build the necessary collection infrastructure to support the process. By attaching a value to the waste material, ensuring it is collected and managed responsibly, we will help prevent ocean plastic leakage.”