Cargill, Unilever chart multiple paths to reduce plastic in packaging

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Cargill
Source: Cargill

Related tags Plastic Sustainability

Large food and beverage suppliers and manufacturers are aggressively reducing their use of plastic in response to rising concerns about the material’s negative environmental impact by consumers who increasingly shop based on their values.

Among those making strides in this area are ingredient supplier and brand manufacturer Cargill, which announced last week that it cut 2.5 million pounds of plastic from its vegetable oil packaging by investing in new technology and only using recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic for packaging in its new bottling lines in North America.

Following Cargill’s announcement, food and beverage giant Unilever yesterday committed to halving its use of virgin plastic in its packaging and to collect and process more plastic packing than it sells by 2025.

Both companies are pursuing different paths to achieve their goals, and in doing so, paving the way for others to follow.

Cargill focuses on waste reduction, streamlined technology

Recognizing that the plastic waste problem is not an easy one to solve, Cargill is taking a multi-layered approach much like its customers, said Matt Kempainen, packaging engineer for Cargill’s edible oils business in North America.

He explained that Cargill’s regional teams are working directly with customers on their specific goals, which is reflected in the company’s diversity of initiatives.

“Our approach relies on using both internal expertise and capabilities, including engineers specifically dedicated to optimizing and reducing packaging use, as well as external partnerships to unlock the best solutions,”​ which then can be leveraged across the globe, he said.

For example, in North America, Cargill eliminated 930,000 pounds of plastic in packaging a year by investing $43 million in new bottling line technology at three of its crush and refinery facilities in North America, as well as retrofitting existing equipment, Kempainen said.

“Our proprietary, smart technology uses fully recyclable plastic. It reduces packaging material waste. And, it helps cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of plastic used in the packaging, as well as lowering GHGs emitted during transportation by creating bottles on site,”​ he said.

Expanding on the last point, Kempainen said that blowing, filling and packaging PET bottles all within the same facility rather than bringing already blown ones has multiple benefits.

“Shipping and supply chain is one example. In each trailer, we receive vastly more preforms than is possible when using already blown bottles. This means more trucks off the road, leading to a reduced environmental footprint and a more cost-effective finished product,”​ he said.

“In terms of impact on workflow, these lines are very fast and accurate. The new technology makes possible both capacity and sustainability enhancements,”​ he added.

He also noted, “Generally, the more plastic you have the easier it is to make a bottle. When removing plastic to create a more sustainable package, the way the production equipment handles the package changes. In some instances, our plastic reduction initiatives have simply required a creation of new operating standards and set points, while other initiatives have required capital investments to retrofit or purchase new equipment.”

Cargill’s efforts to reduce plastic so far are just the beginning, said Tai Ullmann, global sustainability manager for Cargill’s edible oils business. She explained that looking forward it is Cargill’s “intention [is] to continue to reduce the weight of our plastic containers where we can, around the globe, in alignment with our customers and through further innovations and investments.”

Unilever takes a multi-prong approach

Unilever is taking a two-prong approach to minimizing the negative effects of plastic on the environment by 2025 by promising to cut in half the amount of virgin plastic in its packaging and helping to collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells, the company announced Oct. 7.

“When it comes to virgin plastic, we will deliver this in two ways,”​ the company noted in a release. “Firstly, by removing more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic packaging by accelerating multi-use packs – such as reusable and refillable formats – and ‘no plastic’ solutions, which includes alternative packaging materials and ‘naked’ products. Secondly, by accelerating our use of recycled plastic in our packaging.”

To fulfill its promise to collect and process more plastic packaging, Unilever commits to investing and partnering to improve waste management infrastructure in many of the countries where it operates; buy and use recycled plastics in its packaging, and buy back its packaging through “producer responsibility schemes.”

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