Forging partnerships to alleviate plastic pollution and to drive an inclusive circular economy is at the core of consumer goods giant Unilever’s strategy to promote plastic stewardship in South Africa

Unilever has intensified its efforts to keep plastics out of the environment. Following a roundtable discussion last month in South Africa – aimed at defining the role of plastics in driving a circular economy – the company became a founding signatory to the South African Plastics Pact, a voluntary initiative supported by the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), the South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO) and the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO).   

In signing the agreement, the CEO of Unilever South Africa, Luc-Olivier Marquet, confirmed that, by 2025, the company would aim to cut its use of virgin plastic by half and, in the interim, would help to initiate programmes locally to collect and recycle more plastic packaging than it sells.

In addition, he reaffirmed a prior commitment – made in 2017 – that globally Unilever would ensure that all of its plastic packaging was 100-percent reusable, recyclable or compostable. “We need to keep plastic off the streets, out of landfills and away from the ocean – we need to recycle it until we have alternatives,” he said.

According to Marquet, the cost of doing nothing would be much higher than the cost of taking action. “There is no time to waste,” he said. “We want our commitment to influence other local and global companies to make the planet a better and cleaner place in which to live.”

The chairman of SAPRO, Johann Conradie, said: “These commitments from one of largest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies in the world will help to drive circularity, recyclability and the use of recyclable plastic, which will contribute to helping to clean the environment and challenge other brands on local and international levels.”

Tatjana von Bormann, head of policy at the WWF, added: “Unilever has not only pledged to ambitious global commitments, but the company has also signed something locally innovative. We will see transformation in the problem of plastics, which will increase opportunities for economic growth, especially in sectors where South Africans need to see recycling become a way of doing business.”

Unilever is also working with partners to improve legislation around waste management. One of the ways in which this is being achieved is by integrating reclaimers or “waste pickers” into the recycling economy and ensuring they are paid for the services they provide.

Luyanda Hlatshwayo, a reclaimer and executive member of ARO, said it was time for South Africans to see exactly what was happening in the recycling industry. “The work done by reclaimers has been hidden. Many citizens survive on recycling and the collection system, resulting in a high collection ranking for South Africa – higher than that of most other countries. We are happy to be partnering with Unilever. Now, hopefully, other companies will come forward.”

In establishing its green credentials, Unilever has a long history of collaboration with a number of conservation organisations in South Africa, among them the Wildlands Conservation Trust, developers of a brick made from waste materials and rushed glass.

Andrew Venter, CEO at Wildlands Conservation Trust, said: “My hope is that the commitments made by Unilever and the South African Plastic Pact will create massive steps towards a future where our children can live in a waste free world.”

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