Low Price Singles: How Unilever Bags Became a Disaster | oceans

FFive years ago, Unilever announced a “radical recycling” operation aimed at tackling the massive waste disaster it helped create: billions of single use bags It is littered with landfills in Southeast Asia, polluting its waterways and washing its beaches.

The “bag economy” of low-priced singles, aimed at poorer consumers, began in much of the developing world in the 1990s. Sold in stores and kiosks in Southeast Asia and Africa, these brightly colored, palm-sized packets hold everything from shampoo to coffee. But their size and multi-layered structure make their collection and recycling nearly impossible. In Indonesia, which lacks the infrastructure to deal with waste, they are the ultimate symbol of exclusionary culture 16% of all plastic waste.

The oceans swirl with plastic. More than 8m tonnes pour into the seas every year, spewed out via rivers, dumped on coastlines or abandoned by fishing vessels. Plastic even contaminates the air: in many places, it literally rains plastic.

However, while ocean pollution suggests bobbing plastic bottles or straws, these make up only a fraction of the total. In this series, the Guardian’s Seascape project is looking at what is in this plastic avalanche to find out where it comes from, the harm it causes and what can be done to fix it. 

The type of plastic that proliferates through ocean ecosystems depends on where you look. While bags and food wrappings dominate the shoreline, further out it is abandoned fishing gear and plastic lids.

Some sources of plastic pollution are less obvious, such as cigarette butts and sachets. Then there’s the vast, unseen churn of microplastics – trillions of tiny fibres and beads that are now so much part of our water systems that every week most people drink a credit card’s worth of it.

Microplastic itself has many sources. It comes from clothes fibres, released in washing machines, and from nurdles, the building blocks for many plastic goods that are often spilled in their billions from ships, causing as much damage as oil spills (though still not classified as hazardous).

And it comes, in huge quantities (representing about a quarter of all microplastic in oceans), from tyre dust – the residue generated as people drive their cars ( and even bicycles) down the street.
Chris Michael, Seascape editor

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Oceans spin in plastic. More than 8 million tons flow into the seas every year, scattered through rivers, dumped on coasts or abandoned by fishing vessels. Plastic even pollutes the air: in many places, it literally rains plastic.

However, while ocean pollution refers to the swaying of plastic bottles or straws, they make up a fraction of the total. In this series, the file Guardian’s Seascape Project He investigates what’s in this plastic breakdown to find out where it’s coming from, the damage it’s causing and what can be done to fix it.

The type of plastic that reproduces across ocean ecosystems depends on where you look at. While bags and food wrappers dominate the coast, fishing gear and plastic wraps are left behind.

Some sources of plastic pollution are less obvious, such as cigarette butts and bags. Then there’s the invisible massive influx of microplastics — trillions of microfibers and beads that are now so much a part of our water systems that most people each week Drink a credit card Deserves all the effort.

The plastic particles themselves have many sources. it comes from clothing fiberslaunched into washing machines, and is a building block of many plastic goods often spilled By the billions of ships, causing significant damage such as the oil spill (although it is still not classified as dangerous).

It comes in huge quantities (representing about a quarter of all microplastics in the oceans), from tire dust – the residue generated as people drive their cars (and even bikes) down the street.
Chris Michael, Seascape Editor

Photo: Andrey Nekrasov / Rex Features

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Indonesia Produces 7.8 million tons Of plastic waste annually, according to the World Bank, 4.9 million tons are uncollected, dumped, or left in improperly managed landfills. appreciate 4.5% of this plastic waste – or about 350,000 tons – it ends up in the ocean.

to address this generate a problemUnilever launched a waste collection scheme in Indonesia in 2017, which it said would help “empower” waste pickers, who are responsible for recycling much of the country’s plastic waste and are among its poorest and most marginalized workers.

A booth with dozens of hanging bags of clips and other FMCG boxes
One of Indonesia’s many stalls selling bags of everything from shampoo to coffee. Photo: Courtesy of Gaya

At the same time, the company launched a pilot recycling plant using a system called CreaSolv that promised to Recycle bags into new products As part of Unilever’s pledge to ensure that all of its plastic packaging is complete Can be reused, recycled or composted by 2025. Unilever said the plant in Sidoarjo, East Java, is designed to recover polyethylene, which accounts for more than 60% of bag layers, to produce high-quality polymers, which are then made into new bags.

But Indonesian garbage collectors, organizations representing waste pickers and environmental organizations tell a different story. Unilever abruptly halted the collection scheme supporting the project, they told the Guardian, leaving uncollected waste to pile up outside waste banks.

Some waste collectors, unable to find buyers for their uncollected bag waste, incinerated them to allow more profitable waste streams, causing air pollution. Meanwhile, waste pickers who work in landfill sites They said they were no better off, as the bag waste is too low in value to be collected.

The scheme was an “exorbitant failure,” said Yubel Novien Putra, clean energy officer for the nonprofit Global Alliance for Burn Alternatives (Gaia) Indonesia.

Putra organization published a Report It was concluded in January that Unilever’s plan had failed due to low recyclability and low waste value. “There is a lot of effort to collect bag waste and the price is very low,” Putra said, adding, “Unilever has not empowered waste pickers and provided them with an income.”

A boy was hardly seen amidst an expanse of plastic and other waste among the huts
A boy fetches his ball from a trash-filled stream in Manila. Indonesia’s problems with plastic waste are repeated in the Philippines. Photo: Noel Seles/AFP/Getty

Keep track of The Guardian’s results Reuters report Last year, which cited two people involved in Unilever’s CreaSolv plant that allegedly abandoned plans to build a large-scale operation. They told Reuters it was not commercially viable because of the cost of collecting, sorting and cleaning the bags.

Unilever denied the report’s findings, saying the plant was still operating and that it was “actively working” to expand its technology. in the current situation, Unilever He said the pilot plant had been severely disrupted by Covid, affecting its assembly service.

In Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia’s second largest city, an hour away from Unilever’s new recycling plant, local waste bank operators, orSamba BankThe bag’s waste has been piling up since Unilever stopped collecting it, he said.

Sutarti, a 15-year veteran waste dealer from Bangkingan Village, accepts almost every type of inorganic waste – from plastic bags to bottles. But she wasn’t used to collecting bags because she couldn’t find a buyer.

About five years ago, Unilever approached its own waste bank. “They said they would buy waste bags,” Suarte said. “They also gave us some money to start this.” She was excited.

“I bought [sachet waste] for about 500 rupees [3p] per kilogram, then Unilever bought it from us for Rs 800,” which earned her a modest profit of Rs 300 per kilo.

But after two years, the scheme was discontinued. Unilever told her that there was a fire at the plant that was processing waste and that she had to finish collecting the bags. “Last year they told us they would do it again but there is no news yet.”

Brightly colored bags of sunlight and surf cleaner.
Bags of two of the many Unilever products sold in sachets. Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

It was left with a pile of bag waste and nowhere to put it. “Nobody wanted to buy it, I tried to keep it. But we don’t have a place to store it so I was trying to burn it down little by little every day,” said Sutarti.

Other waste banks are also struggling to get rid of the bag waste Unilever has offered to buy.

Erna Utami, chief operating officer of Samba Bank in Babatan Pelang, a suburb of Surabaya, said Unilever helped build and run the facility, before bag waste collection stopped in 2017.

“There are still three bags of bag waste in our place,” Otami said. “We are very disappointed. We have tried to inform the government and the company of this problem at every seminar or meeting about the waste that we attend.”

Shanti Wardyani Ramadan, who helps run Samba Bank in Jombang District, East Java, said he has about a ton of unclaimed waste bags.

“We tried to store the waste from the bags that people collected because we don’t want them to burn it or throw it into the river,” Shanti said. It has since asked its members to stop sending waste, because they ran out of storage space. She added that the price Unilever paid to waste banks for bag waste was very low, compared to the price of other waste.

Brice Polly Lingkong, president of the Indonesian Independent Scavengers Association (PPIM), a group with 3.7 million members, said the bags were the least valuable type of waste. Scavenger workers who work at Bantar Gebang, Southeast Asia’s largest landfill, located about 20 miles (32 km) from Jakarta, earn about 1.5p per kilogram of sacks. In comparison, plastic bottles fetch 20p per kilo, and even a kilo of plastic bags equals about 7p.

Women in masks, orange uniforms and rubber boots, move through a huge landfill
Workers sort waste at the giant Bantar Jebang landfill in Bekasi, West Java: Bag waste is worthless for rubbish. Photograph: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

“In the mountains of waste in Bantar Gebang, you may find large amounts of multi-layer bag waste,” said Lengkong, who works as a middleman who buys and sells waste from garbage.

“The scavengers can’t absorb them because they don’t get any value for them,” he said.

The bags are expected to be sold out Increased annual growth rate of 5.8% Between 2021 and 2031, according to one market report.

While many countries have banned single-use plastics, few bags of waste cover, with some exceptions such as Sri Lanka which Some bags were banned last year.

Last September, Coca-Cola subsidiary in the Philippines Pledge to phase out plastic bags and straws In the country, before a law was passed prohibiting the use of plastic straws and coffee stirrers.

Unilever CEO Alan Job has called for an end to the bags, saying they are “largely impossible to recycle mechanically” and therefore “have no real value”. However, the company has lobbied privately against proposed bans in India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Reuters reported in June.

Indonesian environmental activists display banners next to models wearing plastic waste during a campaign against climate change marking
Activists wearing mannequins wear plastic waste during an Earth Climate Day protest in Surabaya, East Java, in April. Photo: Johnny Chrysuanto/AFP/Getty

A spokesperson for Unilever said it has continued to work with governments on solutions such as replacing multi-layer bags with recyclable alternatives, adding: “We need to consider whether technical alternatives are broadly viable and affordable for low-income consumers while ensuring that they do not It doesn’t lead to unintended consequences.

“We have trialled the use of CreaSolv technology at our pilot plant in Indonesia, where our initial work addressed the technology’s technical and commercial viability.”

The company said it was able to recycle polyethylene from multi-layer bags to produce “high-quality polymers,” which are then used in their packaging.

Unilever declined to explain how it would achieve its goal of making all packaging, including bags, reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

“Our work at the pilot plant was severely disrupted by Covid-19, which affected all parts of our experiment, including bag collection as feedstock for the plant. The plant is still operational and we are actively working with other partners to determine the feasibility of scaling up this technology.”

For activists like Putra, the company needs to do more to tackle the waste scourge it has created. He said, “Unilever is pushing the problem of hard-to-recycle materials into our communities. They have created the market and it is their responsibility to solve it.”