Nica Richards
Deputy online news editor
6 minute read
22 Oct 2020
3:10 pm

Go sustainable with cleaning products and vote with your wallet

Nica Richards

As much as big businesses can be held accountable for polluting the planet, consumers too have a role to play in choosing their products wisely.

Unilever has pledged that by 2030, all its products will use biodegradable formulations and 100% of its packaging will be recyclable and reusable, in a bid to become a significant player in the circular economy. Consumers are urged to hold it accountable. Photo for illustration: iStock

No matter how sustainable the world pledges to be, due to the adverse effects of global warming, South Africa is locked into an expected 4°C temperature increase by 2080.

This was revealed by Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership South Africa director Dr Andrew Venter during Unilever’s clean future launch discussion on Thursday. The launch was hosted by public speaker and businesswoman Jo-Ann Strauss. 

Unilever’s range of cleaning products account for 70% of the company’s sales volume and 20% of its turnover.

Unilever Home Care Africa vice-president Lethepu Matshaba said in the discussion more than one billion citizens were served by Unilever daily.

This translates to a significant quantity of products, materials and, most importantly, fossil fuels.

Therefore, the company has pledged that by 2030, all its products will use biodegradable formulations and 100% of packaging will be recyclable and reusable in a bid to become a significant player in the circular economy and to help save the planet.

A slide from Dr Venter’s presentation showing the life cycle of plastic. Photo: Supplied

Global warming

Venter said over the next century, humankind’s relationship with the planet would change dramatically.

But right now, the global year-on-year temperature increases can solely be blamed on “societal addiction to fossil fuels”, namely coal, oil and natural gas.

Even if all the countries involved in the Paris Agreement, which is an international pledge to reduce unsustainable living, stick to their targets Venter said global temperatures would still increase by up to 2.8°C before a reduction is felt.

Because South Africa is susceptible to rising temperatures and is already a water-scarce country, it runs the risk of food production being reduced 50% by 2080, due to the rate at which arable land continues to be lost.

Population growth, mainly in urban areas, fuels this risk in addition to our reliance on coal for electricity. As the population grows, the resources consumed will increase. At this point, we may be consuming more than we are replenishing. Soon, there will be no more fish to catch or trees to cut.

The number of new residents entering cities around the world. Population growth means consuming more resources and destroying more ecosystems. Photo: Supplied

“We are destroying our planet. We need to change how we’re doing it. Our generation has figured out how to make money as fast as possible from resources from the planet without thinking of future generations,” Venter warned.

Dr Venter’s slide on population growth. Photo: Supplied

We can turn it around – provided economies are decarbonised, our relationship with natural ecosystems change for the better and inequality disappears.

This is not an overnight solution. It could take decades before we begin to feel the effects of leading more sustainable lives.

Making sustainability accessible

As much as big businesses can be held accountable for polluting the planet, consumers too have a role to play in choosing their products wisely.

As such, Unilever wishes to “make sustainability commonplace” and to educate populations to “craft a better future”.

Unilever Africa research and development director Jennifer Cromie said 46% of the business’s carbon footprint can be attributed to the materials used in the products it produces.

“We have to reimagine the scene around product design,” which involves a five-pronged approach.

First, petrochemical ingredients must become 100% renewable and recyclable. Second, high-carbon chemistry must change to produce low-carbon products, which involves creating products that use less chemicals, have a lower carbon footprint and can be used in cold water and quick wash washing cycles.

Third, less water needs to be wasted, both in manufacturing and using the product. Fourth, single-use plastic must stop and, lastly, using ingredients that are kinder for the planet.

Unilever’s five-point strategy to make products and materials more sustainable. Photo: Supplied

Unilever is exploring how to get other sources of carbon above the ground. This is known as the Carbon Rainbow, where carbon could potentially be harnessed from plant sources, plastic waste, marine sources such as algae and carbon dioxide being captured.

Unilever’s colour-coded Carbon Rainbow. Photo: Supplied

Educating consumers

Unilever admits it does not have all the answers yet.

However, while the country waits for sustainable initiatives to come to fruition, Unilever’s marketing division’s Nathan Palmer said consumers can make a difference by choosing brands that back-up their sustainability and biodegradability promises.

“Vote with your wallets at the shelf,” he said.

Cromie said the best way for consumers to be sustainable is to “choose innovations that use less plastic entirely”. For example, buying a refill pouch instead of a new bottle.

Products available to consumers who are aiming to be more sustainable. Photo: Supplied

Palmer told The Citizen that pilot plans were in the pipeline to ramp up sustainability and recycling efforts and hopes a R19 billion investment will allow Unilever to create more options for consumers to recycle goods not yet processed in South Africa.

He explained that there is also a strong push to rope in and invest in waste reclaimers.

“It’s a bit like the cart and the horse. We need to set up a system to do it and create demand.

“We need consumer support, but most consumers don’t buy based on the planet, rather on cost. But we won’t thrive unless the environment thrives.”

Projected global warming temperatures. Photo: Supplied

The company has urged consumers to hold it accountable and to voice their concerns on how to best lead a sustainable life.

Human beings have trapped themselves and the environment in a toxic, unsustainable way of life. But with keeping small things in mind, such as choosing the right product that is a healthier option for the planet, consumers have the power to change how much more we damage our planet.

What to keep in mind when buying products with plastic packaging:

  • Recyclable products aim to reduce landfill space. They can be collected and turned into new products. South Africa does not recycle all waste materials, but glass, metal, aluminium, paper, cardboard and some plastics are recyclable. Check the back of the packaging – if it says Other, it means that the material it is made of is not yet recyclable in South Africa. Try to choose recyclable materials as often as possible.
  • Biodegradable products aim to disintegrate in landfills – but it is not yet known exactly how long products take to break down. Some also end up breaking up into smaller micro plastics, which still harm the environment. But it is the lesser of the unsustainable evils, as its manufacturing process is usually slightly more nature-friendly.
  • Compostable products are made from natural materials and are meant to dissolve into compost heaps, while not leaving any toxic traces behind.
  • Bio-plastics are packaging  made from marine or plant-based materials. They are better for the environment, but not all bio-plastics are biodegradable, although usually is recyclable. Again, check the back of a product’s label for more information.
  • It is important to note that biodegradable and compostable products are not yet recyclable.

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