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Unilever has pledged to reduce the amount of plastic packaging it produces annually by about 14 per cent by 2025 across all its brands from Dove soap to Lipton tea, and to halve its reliance on non-recycled plastics. The Anglo-Dutch company also said it would invest over the same timeframe to improve waste collection and processing in the countries where it operates, which could include partnerships with recycling companies or directly paying for the collection of its packaging. The moves are a sign of how looming regulations and consumer concerns about ocean pollution and climate change are prompting makers of food, drink and other consumer staples to change their practices. It is also the first time a big consumer goods company has committed to a numerical target to reduce absolute plastic packaging use, although some retailers, such as Sainsbury’s in the UK, have done so. But campaigners and academics have said the industry must go further and faster, given the scale of the environmental problems and persistently low rates of recycling in much of the world.

Some 127 countries have placed limits on plastic bags, according to the UN, while the EU has banned a range of single-use plastic items such as cutlery, plates and straws by 2021. The UK is considering a draft law to tax packaging that does not include 30 per cent of recycled content. Roughly 200 consumer goods makers, packaging producers, and retailers have made voluntary commitments under a project led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that aims to create a circular economy for plastics, in which they never become waste. Started in 2018, the project has encouraged companies, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Nestle to accelerate their efforts and disclose some data on plastics. Although audited data on packaging is scarce – because companies are not required to disclose it – Unilever has said it produces 700,000 tonnes of plastic packaging annually. This puts it in fifth place among companies which have voluntarily disclosed their figures, after Coca-Cola with 3m tonnes a year, Nestle with 1.7m tonnes, Danone with 750,000, and Tetra Pak with 721,000.

Unilever’s new pledges complement two earlier ones to use 25 per cent recycled plastic in its packaging and to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The company said it was on track to meet those commitments, but it declined to say how much money it would spend overall on the efforts.

“This demands a fundamental rethink in our approach to our packaging and products” said chief executive Alan Jope. “It requires us to introduce new and innovative packaging materials and scale up new business models, like re-use and re-fill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity.” Packaging is the biggest single use of plastic, accounting for more than a quarter of global demand, according to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Campaigners have identified the global trade in plastic waste as a main culprit in marine litter, because the industrialised world has for years shipped much of its plastic recyclables to developing countries, which often lack capacity to process the material.

Sian Sutherland, a green campaigner who co-founded advocacy group A Plastic Planet, welcomed Unilever’s new commitments, which she described as “some serious plastic reduction”, but said industry overall must be much bolder. “Plastic pollution is increasing daily and we need absolute urgency in turning off the plastic tap. Recycled plastic is still only one step away from the bin, incinerator, landfill or ocean” she said.