Unilever: Sortable Black Plastic

The Need: Carbon black is the pigment that is most used today to color plastics and is responsible for creating a black color. Automatic optical sorting machines are unable to distinguish black plastic because they use near infra-red light which is absorbed by the ‘carbon black’ pigment traditionally used to color the bottles. This effectively makes them invisible to the sorter and leads to them being rejected and directed to landfill.

The Solution: We have been working on a solution for black plastic for some time. In 2019, we approached The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) who helped assemble a cross-company, cross-functional working group to investigate the sortability of black colorants. Unilever led the working group to test the technology that would be used to make black plastic detectable by waste sorting systems. We worked across the entire value chain and have since made the solution accessible to others in the industry.  Unilever has committed to ensuring that, globally, all our plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. We’ve also committed to halve our use of virgin plastic, by reducing our absolute use of plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes and accelerating our use of recycled plastic.

What makes it particularly smart or circular? Makes it possible to keep black plastic in the circular economy and stopping it from unnecessarily going to landfill.

Results, Benefits, and Outcomes to Date: In converting our Axe portfolio to sortable black plastic, we were also able to continue using 100% PCR.

Which of the Pact’s 4 Targets does your work help achieve? Targets 1 & 2

How are you communicating your success? Currently pitching media. We will also communicate on unileverusa.com and social media channels.

What’s Next? We are focusing on converting our TRESemmé portfolio next. Our Axe portfolio has been converted.

Core Team, Partners, & Participants: This was a collaboration with our R&D packaging teams, led by our Sr. Manager for Packaging Sustainability

Time Frame: 1.5 years

Quote: “Unilever has some big plastics commitments, including ensuring that all of our plastic packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025,” said Niki King, head of Sustainability for Unilever North America. “Finding a way to ensure our black plastic packaging is widely recyclable was a significant step in converting brands that use this color in their packaging, which include Axe and TRESemmé.”

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