Unilever Indonesia targeted by NGO over sachet pollution and weakened plastic reduction goals

The company that pioneered sachets to sell its products to low-income families must take responsibility for their devastating environmental impact, say activists. Unilever says it has cut virgin plastic use and finding alternatives to sachets “remains a priority”.

Greenpeace protest action at Unilever headquarters in Indonesia
Environmental activists protest against Unilever's plastic footprint in Indonesia by delivering the company’s logo made from its single-use plastic packaging. The action was staged at Unilever’s shareholders general meeting in Tangerang, Banten, Indonesia. Image: Dhemas Reviyanto / Greenpeace

Unilever has been targeted by environmental activists in Indonesia over its contribution to plastic pollution in the archipelago and for weakening a commitment to reduce the use of virgin polymers in its packaging.

The British packaged goods company, which pioneered single-use plastic sachets in Indonesia to sell its products in affordable quantites, must phase out multilayered disposable packaging and pivot more aggressively towards refill options, Greenpeace said in a protest held outside Unilever’s Indonesia headquarters on Friday.

The group also called on Unilever, which generates US$2.5 billion in revenue in Indonesia from selling fast-moving consumer goods such as soap, detergent and snacks, to drop “false solutions” such as chemical recycling for hard-to-recycle sachets, and open its waste reduction roadmap to public scrutiny.

Unilever – a company widely revered for its sustainability credentials – has drawn criticism for rolling back targets for the amount of virgin plastic it uses in its packaging. 

Previously, Unilever said it would halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025. But in April it announced new targets, saying it would cut virgin plastic use by just 30 per cent by 2026, and 40 per cent by 2028. Activists have described the company’s backsliding as “shameful”.

The firm has also said it would increase the use of recycled plastic in its packaging to 25 per cent by next year, up from 22 per cent currently. 

Greenpeace said Unilever should abide by Indonesia’s Extended Producer Responsibility law, which requires companies to publish roadmaps to cut packaging waste by 30 per cent by 2029. 

The London-headquartered company consistently ranks among Indonesia’s top plastic polluters, in a country that ranks second globally for its contribution to marine plastic litter. Unilever also ranks among the world’s top plastic polluters alongside other multinationals like Coca-Cola, Danone, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble.

Unilever: finding sachet alternatives “a priority”

In response to Greenpeace’s campaign, Unilever said it has made “real, tangible progress” to manage its plastic footprint, for instance increasing its use of recycled plastic. But it conceded that it had “much more work to do, which is why we’re evolving our approach.”

“Reducing our virgin plastic use and developing alternatives for hard-to-recycle flexible plastic packaging, like plastic sachets, remains a priority,” the company told Eco-Business in a statement, adding that it was looking to develop “viable, scalable alternatives that reduce plastic waste.”

Unilever’s venture into chemical recycling with a sachet recycling facility in Indonesia in 2017 reportedly failed, although the company continues to invest in finding alternatives to small plastic packages.

The company is also expanding a network of refill options at outlets across Indonesia and works with waste banks, known in Indonesia as bank sampah, to collect, sort and return used packaging.

However, Greenpeace has questioned whether Unilever’s refill pilot projects will be integrated into the company’s core business model and called on the company to publicly commit to reuse and refill.

“If Unilever’s commitment to move towards reuse and refill remains minimal compared to its production of disposable plastic packaging, then no significant change will result,” said Ibar Akbar, leader of Greenpeace Indonesia’s plastic project.

He also questioned Unilever’s partnership with waste banks in Indonesia, challenging the company on how it can sell its products all over the archipelago without integrating waste recovery into its core operations.

“Transparency is crucial. When waste is collected, what steps does Unilever take to manage it?” said Akbar, adding that the company continues to focus on recycling as a solution, rather than plastic use reduction.

Unilever’s watering down of its sustainability commitments has been partly attributed to cost-cutting. The company reported a 5 per cent drop in Indonesia sales in the first quarter of 2024, which it attributed to price adjustments. Indonesia is one of Unilever’s biggest Asian markets.

Greenpeace’s protest comes one month after a Cornell University study found that Indonesians consume more microplastic than almost anywhere in the world, ingesting 15 grams of the material – equivalent to three credit cards – every month. 

The protest was held four months before the final round of negotiations for a global treaty on plastic pollution, which Unilever has declared it supports. One of the treaty’s proposed aims is the roll-out of EPR schemes that hold firms responsible for post-consumer waste. Indonesia’s EPR scheme is deemed to be weak, as it is based on voluntary efforts by producers.

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