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Unilever to eliminate fossil-derived chemicals from cleaning, laundry products by 2030

September 3, 2020
Chemical Value Chain

Unilever has announced that it will source 100% of the carbon currently derived from fossil fuels in the company’s cleaning and laundry product formulations with renewable or recycled carbon by 2030.

The move is set to transform the sustainability of cleaning and laundry brands including Omo (Persil), Sunlight, Cif, and Domestos, the company says.

“Most cleaning and laundry products available today contain chemicals made from fossil fuel feedstocks, a non-renewable source of carbon,” the company says. “Unilever’s move to renewable or recycled sources of carbon for these chemicals is a deliberate shift away from the fossil fuel economy.”

The chemicals used in Unilever’s cleaning and laundry products make up the greatest proportion of their carbon footprint, 46%, across their lifecycle, the company says. “By transitioning away from fossil-fuel-derived chemicals in product formulations, the company will unlock novel ways of reducing the carbon footprint of some of the world’s biggest cleaning and laundry brands,” Unilever says. The company expects the initiative alone to reduce the carbon footprint of the product formulations by up to 20%.

The target is a core component of Unilever’s Clean Future program, an innovation plan designed by the company’s home care division to change the way that its cleaning and laundry products are created, manufactured, and packaged. Clean Future is intended to embed the circular economy principles into packaging and product formulations at the scale of global brands to reduce their carbon footprint. The program is a step toward Unilever’s pledge of net zero emissions from its products by 2039, the company says.

Unilever says it is ring-fencing €1.0 billion ($1.2 billion) for Clean Future to finance biotechnology research, CO2 and waste utilization, and low-carbon chemistry, which it says will drive the transition away from fossil-fuel-derived chemicals. The investment will also be used to create biodegradable and water-efficient product formulations, to halve the use of virgin plastic by 2025, and support the development of brand communications that make these technologies appealing to consumers, the company says. The Clean Future investment is in addition to Unilever’s previously announced €1-billion Climate and Nature fund and is focused on developing “affordable cleaning and laundry products that deliver superior cleaning results with a significantly lower environmental impact,” it says.

“Clean Future is our vision to radically overhaul our business,” says Peter ter Kulve, president of Unilever’s home care business. “As an industry, we must break our dependence on fossil fuels, including as a raw material for our products. We must stop pumping carbon from under the ground when there is ample carbon on and above the ground if we can learn to utilize it at scale.”

Soda ash from CO2

Clean Future projects launched so far include an initiative in Slovakia, where Unilever is partnering with Evonik Industries to develop the production of rhamnolipids, a renewable and biodegradable surfactant that is already used in its Sunlight dishwashing liquid in Chile and Vietnam. Meanwhile, at Tuticorin, India, Unilever is sourcing soda ash produced using a novel CO2 capture technology. The soda ash is made with the CO2 emissions from the energy used in the production process. “Both technologies are hoped to be scaled significantly under the program,” Unilever says.

A pillar of the Clean Future program is Unilever’s Carbon Rainbow, a novel approach to diversifying the carbon used in its product formulations. Fossil sources of carbon will be replaced using captured CO2, plants, and biological sources; marine sources such as algae; and carbon recovered from waste materials. The sourcing of carbon under the Carbon Rainbow will be governed and informed by environmental impact assessments and work with Unilever’s sustainable sourcing programs to prevent unintended pressures on land use, it says.

“We’ve heard time and time again that people want more affordable, sustainable products that are just as good as conventional ones,” ter Kulve says. “Rapid developments in science and technology are allowing us to do this, with the promise of exciting new benefits for the people who use our products, from ultra-mild cleaning ingredients to self-cleaning clothes and surfaces. Our suppliers and innovation partners play a critical role through this transition.”

Unilever’s other existing environmental commitments include zero greenhouse gas emissions from its own operations by 2030; making its product formulations biodegradable by 2030; and halving its use of virgin plastic, helping collect and process more plastic than the company sells, ensure all of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, and using at least 25% recycled plastic in its packaging, also by 2025.

Unilever has seen “unprecedented demand for our cleaning products in recent months” in the fight against COVID-19, ter Kulve says. “But that should not be a reason for complacency. We cannot let ourselves become distracted from the environmental crises that our world is facing.”

By: Ian Young

Source: Chemical Week

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