June 22 (Reuters) - Tiny plastic packets known as sachets
have allowed companies to tap millions of low-income customers
in the developing world but also unleashed a global pollution
A Reuters investigation has found that London-listed
Unilever plc, a pioneer in selling sachets, has
privately fought to derail bans on the problematic packaging
despite saying publicly it wants to "get rid of" them.
Here's what you need to know about sachets.
WHAT IS A SACHET?
While commonly associated with ketchup or cosmetic samples
in wealthy countries, sachets are widely used in emerging
markets to sell inexpensive micro-portions of everyday products,
from laundry detergent to seasoning and snacks.
These palm-sized pouches tend to be made up of multiple
layers of plastic and aluminum foil, melded together using
adhesives, according to Mark Shaw, technical sales manager at
UK-based packaging firm Parkside Flexibles.
A typical sachet will have an inner plastic layer that makes
an airtight seal around the product, a foil layer that provides
an additional barrier against moisture and heat - an important
factor in tropical climates - and an outer plastic layer that
provides flexibility and can be printed on, he said.
WHY DID THEY BECOME SO WIDESPREAD?
Unilever's India subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL),
is widely credited as being the first to mass market products in
sachets when it started selling tiny portions of shampoo for one
rupee ($0.01) in the 1980s.
HUL's former chairman, A. S. Ganguly, outlined the strategy
in a publication to mark the firm's 75th anniversary in 2009.
"We discovered that wealth lies in rural India, and we reached
out to the wider market base," he said, referencing the shampoo
By the turn of the century, nearly 70% of all shampoo sold
in India came in sachets, academic C.K. Prahalad wrote in his
2004 book, "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid."
By this time, other consumer goods giants like Nestle SA
and The Procter & Gamble Company had also
started selling reams of products in sachets to consumers across
Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Now, 855 billion plastic
sachets are sold every year, enough to cover the entire surface
of Earth, according to London-based environmental group A
WHY ARE SACHETS A PROBLEM?
Proponents say sachets give low-income consumers access to
high-quality, safe products. Critics say companies charge the
poor a premium because products sold this way are more expensive
by volume than bigger packages.
They also have created a massive environmental problem.
Often sold in countries without proper waste collection, these
single-use sachets end up as litter, clogging waterways and
And even in countries with waste infrastructure, the complex
design and small size of these packets makes them virtually
impossible to recycle in a cost-effective way. It's easier to
bury or burn them.
WHY ARE THEY HARD TO RECYCLE?
As sachets are made up of different materials bonded
together, it is very difficult to separate them using current
recycling infrastructure, said Stephan Laske, global director of
research and development at Austrian plastic packaging maker
Tiny sachets are also hard to collect, sort and wash, said
Shaw of packaging firm Parkside Flexibles.
Both said sachets could be recycled using so-called advanced
recycling processes that use heat or chemicals to turn plastic
waste into fuel or reclaimed resin to make new plastic. But this
technology has repeatedly flopped and struggled to achieve
commercial scale despite heavy promotion by plastic makers and
consumer goods firms, Reuters revealed last year.
WHAT CAN REPLACE SACHETS?
Consumer goods companies say they are experimenting with
various alternatives to plastic sachets, such as using
biodegradable packaging or dispensing products in refill
machines that allow customers to use the same container over and
But these projects have not been rolled out widely.
Environmentalists like Sian Sutherland, founder of A Plastic
Planet, say governments need to impose bans on sachets to
stimulate real change. "Then we will create the vacuum that
innovation will rush in and fill," she said.
(Reporting by John Geddie in London and Joe Brock in Singapore;
Editing by Marla Dickerson)