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 aluminum, sachets are nearly impossible to recycle and aren’t biodegradable. They’re littering neighborhoods, jamming garbage dumps, choking waterways and harming wild creatures. Yet even as Unilever executives have publicly decried 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 company pressed the government to reconsider a proposed sachet ban, then tried to maneuver 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 lawmakers, sources directly involved said.
London-based Unilever declined to comment on the company’s lobbying activities in these markets and said it adheres to Sri Lankan law. A spokesperson said the firm is “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.
Unilever, the maker of hundreds of household brands including Dove soap, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, first marketed plastic sachets on a mass scale in India in the 1980s. The consumer giant remains among the biggest users of this packaging, and other companies have followed suit. Now, 855 billion plastic sachets are sold every year industry-wide, enough to cover the entire surface of Earth, according to A Plastic Planet, a London-based environmental group.
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, CEO 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’s 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 6 milliliter (ml) 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 the prohibition, the three sources said, Unilever relabeled its 6 ml sachets to indicate they should not be sold individually, 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.
In a statement to Reuters, Unilever said it was fully compliant with Sri Lanka’s regulations.