COLOMBO, June 22 (Reuters) - 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
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
In recent years, Unilever has become a vocal critic of
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
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.
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
"Unilever approached us and said: 'Don't do this, sachets
are a poor man's commodity.' We said: 'Yes, you have addicted
the poor man to sachets. Now they have no choice.'"
Unilever did not respond to questions about Jasinghe's
The company, which makes 58% 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% 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
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 which
he says is on a journey to become the world leader in
Part of its efforts have focused on ways to recycle or
reduce single-use plastic packaging.
Reuters found that five such programs 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 about these failures,
Unilever said in a statement that ending the use of multilayered
plastic sachets was "a complex technical challenge, with no
The company 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, many shops in developing
countries would measure out tiny portions of sugar, coffee and
other basics for sale to poor customers who'd bring their own
containers, according to Von Hernandez, global coordinator of
Break Free From Plastic, a coalition of more than 2,000
environmental groups focused on plastic pollution. He said this
style of buying - known as "tingi" culture in the Philippines -
is common throughout Asia. Through the development of sachets,
Hernandez said big brands "appropriated it with plastic
packaging to foster and promote loyalty to their products."
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.
The United Nations in March 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 companies pay to collect this trash.
Only 9% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled,
partly because most plastic packaging is designed to be used
just once, according to a landmark 2017 study published in the
journal Science Advances.
Unilever, which was a principal partner of COP26, the United
Nations climate change conference held in Glasgow last year, has
in recent years promoted itself as an industry standout on
sustainability. That claim has elicited skeptical responses from
several environmental groups.
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 the
fundamentals of the business." He did not elaborate.
Smith and Unilever declined a request to comment on the
Plastic sachets are especially prevalent in Asian countries
that contribute the most to ocean plastic pollution, making them
a lightning rod for environmental groups seeking tougher laws on
the biggest users of single-use plastic packaging.
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
Plastic sachets are designed to be 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
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, 130 miles
east of Colombo. 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" and other plastic garbage,
Pushpakumara told Reuters. "They fill their tummies, then they
can't eat their usual diet so they get weaker and weaker, day by
day, and die."
Still, the partial ban on sachets in Sri Lanka has reduced
pollution, according to The Pearl Protectors, an independent
marine protection group based in Colombo that conducts ocean and
beach cleanups. It said its volunteers have reported 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
A SACHET A DAY
Some low-income consumers dispute that claim.
In Crow Island, a suburb of Colombo where barefoot children
play in alleyways strewn with used sachets, Fathima Insana, 26,
told Reuters that Sri Lanka's ban on the smallest packets had
led to cost savings for her household, which includes her
husband, infant son and parents.
She said she used to purchase a 6 ml sachet of Unilever's
Sunsilk shampoo every day for 8 rupees ($0.02), but now saves up
to buy a 180 ml recyclable bottle for 190 rupees. That same 6 ml
portion works out to be 25% cheaper, and the bigger container
lasts her family a month. "A sachet is just for one day," she
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, Reuters found.
In Sri Lanka, Reuters could locate only one Unilever refill
vending machine, placed at the back of a Cargills supermarket in
Unilever declined to comment on its Sri Lanka refill
The company told Reuters 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
Reuters 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.
Unilever declined to comment.
COURTING A SENATOR
The Philippines, a sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago of
more than 7,600 islands and 110 million people, has been
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, according to a 2019 study by the
Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an environmental
In August last year, the nation's House of Representatives
passed a bill that would phase out the use of many single-use
plastic items, including Styrofoam cups, plastic cutlery and
The following month, the bill moved to the Senate to be
reconciled with other proposed plastic regulations. Helming that
effort was Cynthia Villar, the influential chairperson of the
Senate Committee on the Environment and a member of a political
family dynasty in the Philippines.
Villar and Unilever have a history of working together on
The senator's anti-poverty charity, Villar SIPAG Foundation,
in 2017 announced a partnership with Unilever in which the
company would train homemakers and the unemployed to make
handbags from plastic litter. That same year, Villar delivered
the keynote address at the launch of Surf Misis Walastik, a
local Unilever project to collect sachets and other plastic
waste to be used as fuel and converted into chairs for schools.
Unilever directly lobbied Villar last year to focus the
government's plastic regulation on cleaning up sachets rather
than banning them, two people involved in the talks said.
In January, Villar announced that the Senate had passed the
Extended Producer Responsibility Act, which requires consumer
brands to contribute to the cost of collecting and disposing of
plastic waste, incentivized by tax breaks. The proposed phaseout
of single-use plastic was not included in the final legislation.
Villar told Reuters the law was "the compromise alternative"
and that it would help to reduce packaging waste and increase
recycling. She and Unilever did not respond to questions about
their charitable partnerships or the company's alleged lobbying
of the senator regarding the proposed sachet ban.
The measure was ratified by Congress on May 26 and now needs
the signature of the nation's president to come into force.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who leaves office on June 30 when his
term expires, has yet to receive the bill and will review it
when it is submitted, deputy spokesperson Kris Ablan said in
response to Reuters' questions. President-elect Ferdinand
"Bongbong" Marcos Jr. did not respond to requests for comment.
The Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials
Sustainability, a consumer goods lobby group in which Unilever
is a member, publicly said it supported this version of the law.
The legislation calls for fines on companies that fail to
hit targets to clean up plastic waste. But environmental groups
say the penalties are too small to worry big consumer brands.
They range from 5 million pesos ($92,000) to 20 million pesos
($369,000) for serial offenders. Unilever posted global revenue
of 52 billion euros ($55 billion) last year.
Activists have also raised concerns that the legislation
doesn't mandate recycling for the plastic waste that's
collected. The law allows this garbage to be used as fuel in
waste-to-energy plants and cement kilns, a practice green
activists say will increase carbon dioxide and toxic emissions.
"This will only fuel the climate crisis," said Coleen
Salamat, who campaigns against plastic waste at Ecowaste
Coalition, an environmental group based in greater Manila. "This
another band-aid solution without clear targets on
phasing out single-use plastics."
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.
BURNING PLASTIC WASTE
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, according to
two people with knowledge of the matter.
India is Unilever's second-largest market globally after the
United States. The country in 2016 announced new 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 programs to teach school children about
recycling. The company, which reported revenue of 5.6 billion
euros ($5.9 billion) last year in India, declined to say how
much it spends on its plastic waste-reduction projects or to
state its position on India's plastic waste rules.
In 2012, Unilever said in a promotional video it had found a
new high-tech solution for its sachet waste in India. Unilever
proposed using a super-heating process called pyrolysis, also
known in the industry as "chemical recycling," to convert
sachets into fuel.
Offcuts and misprints of new Unilever sachets were sent to a
waste-to-fuel facility in Chennai owned by a company named MK
Aromatics, the Indian partner in the project. There they were
heated and condensed into oil, along with other municipal waste,
and then sold back to Unilever to be used as fuel for one of its
nearby factories, according to Mahesh Merchant, managing
director of MK Aromatics.
Merchant told Reuters the arrangement with Unilever began in
2012 but stopped two years later after the company declined to
invest in his facility.
Unilever told Reuters it stopped working with MK Aromatics
due to unspecified safety concerns. Unilever declined to
MK Aromatics' Merchant said its facility was legally
compliant and "very safe."
The failure of that project is part of a bigger trend.
Reuters revealed last year that dozens of chemical recycling
projects worldwide promoted by the plastics industry and
consumer goods firms have either closed down or stalled at the
pilot stage over the last decade because they were not
commercially viable, including a Unilever project in Indonesia.
At Unilever's annual general meeting this May, CEO Jope said
the company still believed in chemical recycling.
"We just haven't cracked that particular solution yet," he
(Additional reporting by Federica Urso in Gdynia, Dinuka
Liyanawatte and Uditha Jayasinghe in Colombo, Karen Lema, Neil
Jerome Morales and Enrico dela Cruz in Manila, Aditya Kalra and
Neha Arora in New Delhi, Abhirup Roy in Mumbai, Richa Naidu in
London and Stanley Widianto in Jakarta; Editing by Marla