How this woman plans to solve Australia’s recycling crisis

·4-min read
Australian wheelie bins with colourful lids for organic, general waste, and recycling products provided by local city council
How good are you at recycling? Image: Getty

How often have you gone to throw something in the yellow bin, only to be left stumped by the recycling symbol on the bottom of the container?

You’re not alone; Alex McDonald, Unilever’s head of sustainable business, home, beauty and personal care, sits on the Marketing Advisory Committee for the Australasian Recycling Label, and she describes these indicators as “so confusing”.

“There are a lot of different logos about recyclability out there,” she said.

“With the numbers at the bottom of the bottles, it's so confusing. The numbers indicate the type of plastic used… it doesn't actually indicate the recyclability of that product.”

But the new Australasian Recycling Label, which began to appear on products in September 2018, could change that.

“It breaks down the components. If you’re drinking a beverage bottle, it will break it down by the cap and it will break it down by the bottle and... if it’s not recyclable it will say ‘bin’ and if the bottle is recyclable it will say ‘recycle at kerbside’.”

The Australasian Recycling Label
The Australasian Recycling Label

The label recently scored top marks in a global assessment of packaging standards, but to McDonald, the best part is how it empowers consumers to make better recycling choices.

In fact, empowering consumers and all parts of business to recycle better is her ultimate goal.

Building a circular economy

A circular economy is one where plastic doesn’t become waste, it’s reused. And the key to achieving this is to shift perceptions, McDonald said: plastic shouldn’t be considered waste, it should be considered a resource.

While plastic and packaging recycling is well-established in Australia, only 14 per cent of plastic is actually recovered for recycling.

“The broader plastic system is fundamentally pretty broken and there is a key role and opportunity for us [at Unilever] to play in that,” McDonald said.

Unilever in 2017 committed to making 100 per cent of its portfolio recyclable, reusable and compostable. It also committed to using at least 20 per cent recycled plastic.

“At the time, those were industry-leading goals. What we’ve loved seeing since then is other businesses following suit,” she said.

“We need to drive that collective action and uptake.”

They’ve since updated their targets to halve the amount of virgin plastic used and are seeking an absolute reduction of 100,000 tonnes of plastic used.

“While recycling plays a role, we acknowledge that reduction comes first,” McDonald said.

Unilever has also committed to collecting and processing more plastic packaging than they sell.

“Often… it is a bit of a daunting process,” she said. “But if we’re setting goals that we know how we’re going to achieve, are we really stretching enough? That’s where the internal decision making comes from, and then we go about building a roadmap from there around how we’re going to achieve it.”

Around 83 per cent of Unilever’s portfolio is now recyclable, with a goal of having 100 per cent recyclable by 2025.

And Unilever is also bringing a recycled plastic range to shelves in 2020, made from locally-sourced recycled plastic.

Bringing it back to personal choices

“Our guiding vision is to make sustainable living commonplace, and the key word there is ‘commonplace’,” McDonald said.

“It's our job to make sustainable living commonplace and to bring that into products that people wouldn't actually think are eco-products.

“Our recycled plastic range that contains locally sourced Australian plastic includes brands like Dove, OMO, TRESemmé, Toni & Guy.”

The next step is to make it competitive in both quality and price – not everyone will buy a product just because its packaging is recyclable.

“This is a job for our marketers around how they can help educate consumers that, for example, this brand’s performance is really good in terms of cleaning your clothes, and also, by supporting these brands you're playing a really critical role in reducing waste.

“We very much see that as our responsibility in terms of mainstreaming sustainability.”

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