Consumer products manufacturing giant, Unilever (LSE: ULVR and NYSE: UL) is developing pyrolysis technology to make it economically viable to recover fuel from the difficult to treat laminate sachet packaging used for a growing number of products in.
According to the company, single use sachets makes its brands more affordable and is also an efficient use of packaging, creating less waste by weight per millilitre of product sold than bottles.
However, the company added that in the developing markets where sachets are most popular, infrastructure for recycling or disposal is often limited.
For example, in countries such as India Unilever said that many of its products are sold in sachets, as a more affordable alternative to large bottles for consumers and the company produces a whooping 40 billion sachet packet every year.
Unilever explained that two factors affect the reduction of environmental impacts created by post-consumer sachets and flexible packaging. First, the format does not possess sufficient economic value to allow for collection and recycling. Secondly, waste management infrastructure in developing and emerging countries is either poor or inadequate.
To tackle the problem the company said that it has set itself the goal of developing and implementing a sustainable business model for handling its sachet waste streams by 2015.
According to the company it demonstrated 'proof of principle' on a technology known as pyrolysis which turns sachet laminate into fuel oil.
The multinational said that it identified pyrolysis as a potential technological approach which could turn sachet material into fuel and recover up to 60% of the embedded energy in 2009.
In that year the company conducted a study in Asia, which it said confirmed that pyrolysis could offer an effective technological approach to dealing with sachet waste, recovering much of the energy used in the manufacture of the material and offering a practical solution to the problem of sachet litter.
In 2010 pilot projects were then carried out in four countries to assess the commercial viability of pyrolysis.
The company said that the aim of these projects was to see if it could create a sustainable value for discarded sachets, and secondly to understand whether sachets provide a potential business model for waste recovery in economies where recycling and disposal infrastructures are still in development.
One of the pilot projects has provided encouraging results. Partnering with a company in Chennai, India, Unilever claimed to have demonstrated 'technical proof of principle' of turning sachets, pouches and other flexible plastic waste into fuel oil at a viable cost.
To achieve this the plastic is put through a reactor, where it turns first into a molten state and then a vapour. It is then condensed and stored in tanks and used as a fuel oil.
According to the company the Hindustan Unilever factory in Pondicherry, India, has successfully used the fuel extracted to power its plant. The sachet waste has also been burnt in cement kilns in Western India.
Unilever said that the next stage is to find a way to incentivise collection on a large scale, which will require it to work in partnership with other users of flexible plastic waste as well as municipal authorities and NGOs.
A video explaining the development of the technology can be seen below
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