Investigation Reveals: Unilever’s Expensive Plastic Sachet Chemical “Recycling” Failure

Civil Society Organizations Demand Unilever Stop Sachet Production and Switch to Reuse/Refill Systems


Manila, PhilippinesAn investigation from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) in Asia Pacific of Unilever’s sachet recycling efforts in Indonesia revealed that the company’s claims of the recyclability of sachets using a controversial method that industry calls “chemical recycling” has been largely a failure. Two years after the highly-celebrated launch of the pilot plant in Indonesia in 2017, the company secretly shuttered the operation due to insurmountable logistical, financial, and technical challenges. 

Unilever has come under increasing fire due to its outsized role in the plastic pollution crisis by producing single-use plastic packaging around the world that cannot be reused or recycled, causing massive amounts of waste that can only be dumped or burned. Unilever’s plastic sachets are particularly problematic, as their multiple layers of different types of materials, adhesives, and dyes make it impossible to recycle. 

Instead of listening to civil society’s calls to stop producing sachets and create and pursue zero waste solutions such as reuse and refill delivery systems, Unilever started a public relations campaign claiming its “ innovative CreaSolv technology” would be “the first in the world to be able to recycle and reuse multilayer plastic packaging waste.” 

According to the Break Free From Plastic movement’s annual brand audit report last year, Unilever is the third biggest corporate plastic polluter in the world. In Indonesia, plastic sachets make up 16 percent of plastic waste, amounting to 768,000 tonnes per year.

Key Findings: 

  • Unilever aimed to collect 1,500 tonnes of sachet waste for recovery in 2019 and 5,000 tonnes in 2020, but the program failed and was shuttered after two years. 
  • The goal was to recycle multilayer sachets to make new sachets, but due to low recyclability potential of sachets and technological failures, the plant could only process mono-layer sachets to make a different kind of packaging.
  • Unilever sought to prove that with this new technology plastic sachets could be part of a circular economy and recycled multiple times, but forty to sixty percent of waste feedstock was lost as residue during the process, and the recyclability of the product is unproven. 
  • The now closed facility cost Unilever more than EUR 10 million (or equivalent to IDR 156 billion) for construction since 2011. Uncollected sachets were either stored in warehouses, burned or dumped in landfills. The abrupt closure has also disrupted waste pickers’ livelihoods, who were engaged in collection for the project.

“We had our reservations when we first heard of the project,” said Froilan Grate, GAIA Asia Pacific Regional Coordinator.  “But we are always open to innovations as long as it will not create additional problems that the people will have to deal with later.  Clearly, Unilever’s CreaSolv project is not a solution to the sachet problem.  This is another of Unilever’s deceiving publicity stunt designed to altogether avoid the problem (single-use plastics) and the solution (redesign their packaging) so its business as usual. In the end, the plastic problem worsens and people are blamed for it.” 

Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia (AZWI) Co-coordinator Rahyang Nusantara said “the project is a distraction created to make us think that this is the solution to the plastic waste issue.  AZWI members have shown that there are solutions and it starts from the ground through policy work and multi-sectoral cooperation.  What we need is for the plastic industry and the fast-moving consumer goods industry to recognize that the Zero Waste system works and they need to be a part of it instead of pushing for fake solutions that are detrimental to the environment.”

Read the Investigation:

Press contacts:

Sonia Astudillo, Regional Communications Officer, GAIA Asia Pacific 

Claire Arkin, Global Communications Lead, GAIA