Two years ago, Unilever plc Chief Executive Alan Jope said his company would get rid of the tiny plastic packets it uses to sell single servings of shampoo, toothpaste and other basics because of the widespread pollution this packaging creates.
These palm-sized pouches, known as sachets, are commonly associated with ketchup or cosmetics samples in wealthy countries. But they have exploded across the developing world where they are used to sell everything from laundry detergent to seasoning and snacks to low-income households.
They have also helped fuel a global waste crisis. Made of layers of plastic and aluminium, sachets are nearly impossible to recycle and aren’t biodegradable. They are littering neighbourhoods, jamming garbage dumps, choking waterways and harming wild creatures.
Yet even as Unilever executives publicly decry the environmental harm done by this packaging, the multinational has worked to undercut laws aimed at eliminating sachets in at least three Asian countries, Reuters has learned.
In Sri Lanka, the firm pressed the government to reconsider a proposed sachet ban, then tried to manoeuvre around it once regulations were imposed, a senior environmental official told Reuters. In India and the Philippines, Unilever lobbied against proposed sachet bans that were later dropped by MPs, sources said.
London-based Unilever declined to comment on its lobbying in these markets and said it adheres to Sri Lankan law. A spokesperson said they were “phasing out” multilayered sachets by using a variety of potential fixes, including product refill systems, new recycling technology and packaging material that’s easier to recycle.
In recent years, Unilever has become a vocal critic of sachets.
The multilayered design of the packages is “evil because you cannot recycle it,” Hanneke Faber, Unilever’s President for Global Food & Refreshments, said in a 2019 investor presentation.
At an online plastic sustainability event in July 2020, Jope went further.
“We have to get rid of them,” Jope said in response to a question about how using sachets fit into Unilever’s stated plans to reduce plastic pollution. “It's pretty much impossible to mechanically recycle and so it is got no real value.”
Eight months later, the firm got its chance. Sri Lanka last year implemented new regulations to phase out sachets in an effort to stem a tide of plastic waste despoiling beaches, bleaching coral reefs and endangering wildlife on this island nation in the Indian Ocean.
But Unilever continued to sell tiny six milliliter (6ml) single-portion sachets of shampoo and hair conditioner in Sri Lanka, despite the new ban on plastic sachets sized 20 ml or smaller, according to the nation’s Ministry of Environment and two local plastic pollution charities.
Sachets sold in local shops are displayed in sheets stuck together with tear-away seams, making it easy for buyers to detach a single portion. To sidestep prohibition, Unilever relabelled its 6 ml sachets to indicate they should not be sold individually, but rather in four packs as one 24 ml unit.
“Unilever tried to deceive us,” Anil Jasinghe, secretary of Sri Lanka’s Environment Ministry, told Reuters from his office in Colombo, the country’s largest metro area with a population of more than 2.3 million residents.
Jasinghe said his ministry threatened legal action, and that “to their credit” Unilever quickly stopped selling 6 ml sachets. Still, the hard-fought measure applied only to the smallest sizes. Millions of larger sachets continue to be sold in Sri Lanka every day.
Unilever told Reuters it was fully compliant with Sri Lanka’s regulations.
Fighting sachet bans
Jasinghe said that episode capped months of efforts by Unilever to upend the proposed legislation. When Sri Lanka was debating the measure in 2020 — the same year Jope declared sachets to be an environmental scourge — the multinational gave two presentations to officials at the Environment ministry discouraging the government from phasing them out, Jasinghe recalled.
Unilever did not respond to questions about Jasinghe’s assertions.
The company, which makes 58 percent of its revenue from emerging markets, has also lobbied against proposed bans on plastic sachets in India and the Philippines in the past few years, according to interviews with a dozen people involved, including government officials, industry sources and environmentalists.
Sachet bans were later dropped by lawmakers in India and the Philippines, which together account for more than 10 percent of Unilever’s global sales. Reuters could not determine if Unilever’s lobbying influenced the outcome.
Unilever did not respond to questions about the thwarted legislation.
The details of Unilever’s campaigns to derail single-use sachet bans, reported for the first time by Reuters, come as CEO Jope promotes the $113-billion company as a green champion that he says is on a journey to become the world leader in sustainable business.
Part of its efforts have focused on ways to recycle or reduce single-use plastic packaging.
Reuters found that five such programmes launched by Unilever over the last decade in India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka — including novel recycling technology and refill vending machines — have been dropped or not progressed beyond the pilot stage.
In response to Reuters’ questions, Unilever said that ending the use of multilayered plastic sachets was “a complex technical challenge, with no quick fixes.”
The firm would not disclose how many sachets it sells currently or whether its projects have reduced their use. In a promotional video in 2012, Unilever said it sells 40 billion plastic sachets a year.
Nestle SA and The Procter & Gamble Company, Unilever’s rivals who are also major purveyors of products packaged in sachets, declined to answer questions about how many sachets they sell.
Prior to the advent of sachets, shops in developing countries measured out tiny portions of sugar, coffee and other basics for sale to poor customers who brought their own containers, says Von Hernandez, global coordinator of Break Free From Plastic, a coalition of more than 2,000 environmental groups focused on plastic pollution.
In an investigation last year, Reuters revealed plans by Unilever, Nestle and other big brands to burn plastic waste in cement kilns as part of their public pledges to remove trash from the environment. Ecologists say the practice pollutes the air and undercuts efforts to boost recycling rates.
Green credentials mocked
Faced with a wave of plastic bans and polluter-pays laws globally, consumer brands and plastic makers have launched dozens of voluntary initiatives over the last decade which they say will help reduce plastic waste. Yet this pollution gets worse every year.
In March, the UN approved an agreement to draw up the world’s first-ever plastics treaty, which could include capping plastic production, imposing recycling targets and making consumer goods firms pay to collect this trash.
Criticism has also come from one of its biggest shareholders: Fundsmith LLP, a British fund manager. In this year’s annual letter to investors, Fundsmith CEO Terry Smith in January said Unilever had “clearly lost the plot” over its green policies and was “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on fundamentals of the business.”
Mr Smith and Unilever declined a request to comment on the letter.
At Unilever’s annual general meeting on May 4, CEO Jope was harangued about the firm’s continued use of sachets by London-headquartered nonprofit ClientEarth, which had temporarily borrowed shares from an activist investor in order to voice its concerns at the high-profile event.
Jope responded by saying Unilever was “determined to find a solution” to end sachet waste while also continuing to serve low-income consumers.
Plastic sachets are cheap and durable, so they pile up in landfills, clog sewers and spill out from urban waterways into the ocean, where animals often mistake them for food.
Sri Lanka’s crackdown has not eliminated this waste. Its ban excludes larger sachets as well as those containing food or medicine. In Colombo, fisherman Lalith Prasanna pointed across a beach to surf awash with these packets, including sachets of Unilever’s Sunsilk shampoo and Surf laundry detergent.
“I have seen fish with plastic inside their bodies,” Prasanna said. He said sachets have littered prawn breeding grounds, reducing catches.
Land creatures, too, are suffering, said Nihal Pushpakumara, a wildlife veterinarian based in the Amapara region. He said around 20 elephants have died over the last eight years after eating plastic from an open landfill there, autopsies on these giants have revealed.
“They eat all of those sachets. They fill their tummies, then they can’t eat their usual diet so they get weaker and weaker, day by day, and die and other plastic garbage,” Pushpakumara said.
Ocean and beach cleanups
Still, the partial ban on sachets in Sri Lanka has reduced pollution, according to The Pearl Protectors, a marine protection group in Colombo that conducts ocean and beach cleanups. Its volunteers report collecting fewer sachets than before the ban, but had not quantified or documented the exact impact.
“If this is what a ban on some sachets in one country can do, imagine how the environment could change if companies like Unilever got rid of sachets,” said Muditha Katuwawala, coordinator at The Pearl Protectors.
Unilever told Reuters that despite the environmental downsides of sachets, they provide the poor with access to cleaning products and food in small sizes that fit their budgets.
Unilever said in a statement it was working with local governments in countries like Sri Lanka to improve plastic waste collection and disposal. It said those efforts include providing vending machines where customers can refill reusable bottles with products such as liquid dish soap and laundry detergent. It would not disclose how many countries it was working with or how many machines it had deployed.
Some of Unilever’s refill machines in Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines have been placed in upscale malls or supermarkets, far from the poor communities most dependent on sachets. In Sri Lanka, Reuters could locate only one Unilever refill vending machine, placed at the back of a Cargills supermarket in Colombo.
Unilever declined to comment on its Sri Lanka refill programme.
The company said it had launched six refill stations in Mumbai, India, in 2021 and 2022 to sell products like dishwashing liquid in refillable bottles. At a Reliance SMART supermarket in a middle-class neighborhood, a Unilever employee overseeing one of those refill stations told Reuters they sell only around 10 bottles’ worth of products a day.
Unilever’s Jope said in a tweet on July 31, 2019 – six months after he became CEO – that the company was looking at ways to help people buy one container to be used “over and over again.” Along with the hashtag #ReuseRevolution, the post linked to a press release touting efforts such as refill vending machines planned for the Philippines to dispense shampoo and hair conditioner.
We visited three locations in metro Manila where Unilever publicly launched refill stations in 2019. The units were gone. Staff in two of the malls where the stations were placed said they were taken away by Unilever within a month. But still, Unilever declined to comment.
In India, Unilever has been part of industry groups that have raised concerns in recent years over proposals to ban sachets and other multilayered plastic packaging, said two people with knowledge of the matter. India is Unilever’s second-largest market globally after the US and in 2016 announced rules proposing to phase out such packaging within two years.
Those rules were amended in 2018 to exempt packaging that could be “recovered” for energy. It’s a suggestion that arose from a meeting between industry associations and representatives of India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in late 2017, minutes from the meeting show.
That change rendered the ban “toothless” because all plastic, which is derived from oil and gas, can be burned as fuel, said Dharmesh Shah of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, a New Delhi-based nonprofit. Another Indian proposal to ban some sachets was shelved in 2019 following industry opposition, Reuters reported at the time.
India’s environment ministry did not respond to a request for comment about its position on sachets or its meetings with Unilever and industry groups.
Unilever said in a statement that it was working with the Indian government to reduce plastic waste, including funding waste cleanups and programmes to teach school children about recycling.
In 2012, Unilever said in a promotional video it had found a new high-tech solution for its sachet waste in India. It proposed using a super-heating process called pyrolysis, known in the industry as ”chemical recycling,’’ to convert sachets into fuel.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands and 110 million people, is inundated with garbage as sachets have proliferated. A staggering 163 million sachets are used there every day, many swept out to sea by garbage-strewn rivers flowing through teeming cities like Manila, a 2019 study by Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an environmental group shows.
In August last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would phase out the use of many single-use plastic items, including Styrofoam cups, plastic cutlery and sachets. In September, the bill moved to the Senate to be reconciled with other proposed plastic regulations.