Single Servings at Low Prices: How Unilever’s Pouches Became an Environmental Crisis | of the ocean

Five years ago, Unilever announced a “radical recycling” process aimed at helping tackle a massive waste crisis: the billions of single-use pouches that litter Southeast Asia’s landfills, its waterways pollute and wash up on its beaches.

The “conscious economy” of single servings at low prices, targeting poor consumers, began in much of the developing world in the 1990s. Sold at shops and stalls in Southeast Asia and Africa, these brightly colored palm-sized packets contain everything from shampoo to coffee. But their size and layered structure make them nearly impossible to assemble and recycle. In Indonesia, which lacks infrastructure to deal with waste, they represent the ultimate symbol of the throwaway culture, which accounts for 16% of all plastic waste.


plastic in depth


The oceans abound with plastic. Every year more than 8 million tons are dumped into the sea, hauled out through rivers, dumped on beaches or dumped by fishing vessels. Plastic also contaminates the air: In many places, it literally rains down plastic.

However, while ocean pollution suggests tossing plastic bottles or straws, these make up only a fraction of the total. In this series, the Guardian’s Seascape Project is looking at what’s in this plastic avalanche to find out where it comes from, the damage it causes, and what can be done to fix it.

The type of plastic that circulates through marine ecosystems depends on where you look. While bags and food wrap dominate the shoreline, other than that it is abandoned fishing gear and plastic lids.

Some sources of plastic pollution are less obvious, such as cigarette butts and pouches. Then there’s the vast, undiscovered churning of microplastics — the trillions of tiny fibers and pearls that are now so much a part of our water systems that most people drink a credit card’s worth every week.

Microplastics themselves have many sources. It comes from fabric fibers, which are discarded in washing machines, and from nerds, the building blocks for many plastic goods that are often dropped from ships in their billions, causing damage as much as oil spills (though still not classified as dangerous).

And it’s in massive amounts (representing about a quarter of all microplastics in the ocean), from tire dust—a residue produced by people driving their cars (and even bicycles) on the road.
Chris Michael, Seascape Editor

Photograph: Andrey Nekrasov / Rex Features

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According to the World Bank, Indonesia produces 7.8m tonnes of plastic waste a year, of which 4.9m tonnes are uncollected, dumped or discarded in improperly managed landfills. An estimated 4.5% of this plastic waste – or about 350,000 tonnes – ends up in the ocean.

To tackle this growing problem, Unilever launched a garbage collection scheme in Indonesia in 2017, saying it would help “empower” the waste pickers, who are responsible for recycling much of the country’s plastic waste. and are among its poorest and most marginalized workers. ,

A stall with dozens of pouches hanging from clips and boxes of other consumer goods
One of the many stalls in Indonesia selling sachets of everything from shampoo to coffee. Photo: Gaia. Courtesy

At the same time, the company launched a pilot recycling plant using a system called CreaSolv, which pledged to recycle the pouches into new products as part of Unilever’s pledge to ensure that it would not have enough storage space by 2025. All plastic packaging should be completely recyclable, recyclable or compostable. Unilever said the plant in Sidorojo, East Java, was designed to recover polyethylene to produce high-quality polymers, which make up more than 60% of the pouch’s layers, which are then formed into new pouches.

But Indonesian garbage collectors, organizations representing waste pickers and environmental organizations tell a different story. Unilever abruptly called off the collection plan, shutting down the project abruptly, he told the Guardian, piling the waste outside waste banks.

Some garbage collectors, unable to find buyers for uncollected sachet waste, burn it to allow for more lucrative waste streams that create air pollution. Meanwhile, the waste pickers working at landfill sites He said they were no better, as the pouches are too low in value to collect garbage.

The plan was a “costly failure”, said Yobel Novian Putra, Indonesia’s clean-energy officer for the non-profit organization Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia).

Putra’s organization published a report in January concluding that the Unilever plan had failed due to low recyclability and low value of waste. “This pouch is a lot of effort to collect the waste and the price is very low,” Putra said, adding: “Unilever has not empowered the waste pickers and provided them with an income.”

A boy is barely visible among the expanses of plastic and other waste among the huts
A boy fetching a ball from a garbage dump in Manila. Indonesia’s problems with plastic waste have been replicated in the Philippines. Photo: Noel Selis/AFP/Getty

The Guardian’s findings follow a Reuters report last year that cited two people involved in Unilever’s CreaSolv plant who alleged that plans to build a full-scale operation had been abandoned. It was not commercially viable, he told Reuters, because of the cost of collection, sorting and cleaning.

Unilever denied the report’s findings, saying the plant was still operating and it was “actively working” to enhance its technology. In a statement, Unilever said the pilot plant was severely disrupted by COVID, affecting its collection service.

In Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia’s second largest city, an hour away from Unilever’s new recycling plant, operators of local waste banks, or “bank sampah”, said the pouch garbage was piling up ever since Unilever stopped collecting it.

Sutarti, a 15-year-old garbage trader from Bangkingan village, accepts almost every type of non-organic waste from plastic bags to glass bottles. But she never used to collect the pouches as she could not find any buyer.

About five years ago, Unilever approached its West Bank. “They said they would buy the waste of our pouches,” Sutarti said. “They also gave us some funds to start this.” She was enthusiastic.

“I bought [sachet waste] for around Rs 500 [3p] per kg, then Unilever bought it from us for around Rs 800,” she said, making a marginal profit of Rs 300 per kg.

But after two years the plan was shelved. She said Unilever told her there was a fire at the factory that processed the waste and she had to end pouch collection, she said. “Last year they told us they would continue it again but still no news.”

Brightly colored pouches of Sunlight and Surf detergents.
Many of Unilever’s products are sold in sachets of two. Photo: Dinuka Lianawate/Reuters

He has got garbage in the pouch and there is nowhere to put it. “Nobody wants to buy them,” said Sutarti, “I tried to keep them. But we don’t have a place to store them so I am trying to burn them little by little every day.

Other waste banks are also struggling to dispose of the pouch waste that Unilever buys.

Erna Utami, head of operations at Sampa, a bank in Babatan Pilang, a suburb of Surabaya, said Unilever helped build and manage the facility before stopping the collection of pouch waste in 2017.

“There are still three sack pouches of trash left at our place,” Utami said. “We are very disappointed. We are trying to report this problem to the government and company at every seminar or meeting about waste.

Shanti Vurdiani Ramdhani, who helps manage Bank Sampa in East Java’s Jombang Regency, said she has about a ton of unclaimed waste pouches.

“We tried to store the sachet garbage collected by the people as we do not want them to burn them or throw them in the river,” Shanti said. It has since asked its members to stop sending garbage, as they have run out of storage space. He said Unilever had paid waste banks very little for the pouch waste compared to the cost of other waste.

Pris Poli Lengkong, head of the Independent Indonesia Scavengers Association (PPIM), a group with 3.7 million members, said the pouches were the least valuable type of waste. The scavengers working at Banter Gebang, Southeast Asia’s largest landfill, located about 20 miles (32 km) from Jakarta, earn only 1.5p per kilogram from the pouches. Comparatively, plastic bottles cost 20 paise per kg and even a kg plastic bag costs around 7 paise.

Women in masks, orange uniforms and rubber boots pick up from a huge garbage heap
Workers sort out garbage at the huge Bantar Gebang landfill in Bekasi, West Java: Pouched waste is of no value to scavengers. Photo: Willie Kurniawan/Reuters

“You can find loads of multilayer pouched waste in the garbage mountains in Bantar Gebang,” said Lengkong, who acts as a middleman to buy and sell the waste from the scavengers.

“They cannot be absorbed by the scavengers because they do not get any value for them,” he said.

According to a market report, the sales of pouches are projected to grow at an annual growth rate of 5.8% between 2021 and 2031.

While many countries have banned single-use plastics, with some exceptions, some cover pouches such as waste. Sri Lanka, which banned some pouches last year.

Last September, a Coca-Cola subsidiary in the Philippines promised to phase out pouches and plastic straws in the country ahead of a law banning plastic straws and coffee stirrers.

Unilever’s chief executive, Alan Jopp, has called for the pouches to be eliminated, saying they were “very impossible to recycle mechanically” and therefore “had no real value”. However, the company lobbied privately against proposed sanctions in India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Reuters reported in June.

Indonesian environmental activists display placards next to effigies decorated with plastic waste during a campaign against climate change to mark 'Earth Day'
Activists with effigies in plastic waste during an Earth Day climate protest in Surabaya, East Java in April. Photo: Juni Crisvanto/AFP/Getty

A spokesperson for Unilever said it continues to work with governments on solutions such as replacing multilayered pouches with recyclable alternatives, adding: “We need to consider whether technological alternatives are available for low-income people. are largely viable and economical for consumers, as well as ensuring that they do not lead to unintended consequences.

“We are testing the use of CreaSolv technology at our Indonesian pilot plant, where our preliminary work has addressed the technical and commercial viability of the technology.”

The company said it has been able to recycle polyethylene from multilayered pouches to produce “high quality polymers,” which are then used in its packaging.

Unilever declined to explain how it would achieve its goal of making all packaging, including pouches, reusable, reusable or compostable, by 2025.

“Our work at the pilot plant has been severely disrupted due to COVID-19, which has affected all parts of our testing, including the collection of pouches as feedstock for the plant. The plant is operational and we are actively working with other partners to determine the feasibility of scaling up this technology,” the spokesperson said.

For campaigners like Putra, the company needs to do a lot to tackle the scourge of the waste it has created. “Unilever is passing its hard-to-recycle material problem onto our communities. They created the market and it’s their responsibility to solve it,” he said.

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