Grand Rapids, Mich. — Sustainability can require compromise. For global consumer goods maker Unilever plc, that's just fine.
"Our goal is 100 percent recyclability and we're working hard on it every single day. If that means that we need to change a packaging type, we will be changing a packaging type," said Melissa Craig, senior manager of packaging sustainability for Unilever in North America.
"We know that flexibles are a big problem. We use flexibles. We are working on it every single day. That's probably 80 percent of my job right now," she said.
Unilever recently made headlines through news that its Hellmann's brand mayonnaise containers in the United States are transitioning to 100-percent recycled PET by the end of this year.
"We're compromising all the time with all of our products that have PCR [post-consumer resin]," she said at the recent Re|focus Sustainability & Recycling Summit in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Compromise could mean a slightly different tint to plastic packaging or maybe some black specks in the resin.
One way the company assures that compromise does not go too far is by working with packaging suppliers to set guidelines about how much variation is acceptable, Craig said.
Packaging makers know that if a run of bottles ends up being too dark, for example, they just will not send those along. This is really no different than working with packaging suppliers using virgin resin: There are guidelines that must be followed.
Unilever has committed to using 25 percent PCR in its overall packaging by 2025 around the world.
"I'm happy to say that we've accelerated that in North America and by the end of this year, 50 percent in North America will be PCR," Craig said.
An attendee at the conference complemented Craig on the Hellmann's bottles, saying from the audience he could not tell a difference. But she could.
"We did compromise. And we're compromising all the time with our products that have PCR in it. We talked about black specs. That's real when it comes to PCR," she said, adding the container, "has a slightly darker tint to it. It doesn't always look just like virgin. It just doesn't."
Switching to PCR for mayonnaise containers was especially challenging because of the white color of the product. The company also wanted to make sure that the bottle color did not make the product look unappealing to consumers.
Craig told the audience that Unilever believes it can continue to expand its business while also shrinking its environmental footprint.
"We believe that businesses and brands can play a part," she said. "We have a very simple purpose and that's to make sustainable living commonplace."