Life without plastic? The idea gains a big player.

Consumer-goods giant Unilever sets an example with its radical plan to collect more plastic than it sells.

AP
A worker recycles plastics at a collection point in Jakarta, Indonesia.

With ethically discerning young people on the front lines, the war on plastics is finally getting a backbone of steel. On Monday, the world’s third-largest producer of consumer goods, Unilever, announced it plans to collect back more plastic than it sells within the next five years.

If you doubt the British-Dutch multinational is serious, consider this: It is already testing refilling stations for shampoo and laundry detergent in Southeast Asia. Consumers must bring their own containers.

Unilever’s move is a giant leap in a global campaign to persuade companies to keep plastics out of the environment and to design alternatives that are less polluting, especially for ocean life. Many other corporations have made similar pledges, but Unilever’s is very specific. By 2025, it promises to collect and process almost the same amount of plastic that it now uses and to halve its use of virgin plastic. It is investing or forming partnerships in the waste-handling industry. And as it researches new materials, such as plant-based “bioplastics,” it will join with other companies in green innovation.

While it still must produce value for stockholders, Unilever plans to be more values-driven. As a manufacturer, it wants to take responsibility for where its products end up long after they are sold, or to create what is called a “circular economy.” Like many other firms, it wants to lead consumer trends in eco-sustainability – such as avoiding plastic – and not just follow them. To establish credibility and transparency, it is using third-party organizations to verify its products are meeting standards.

Currently, only about 9% of plastic is recycled. And while campaigns to end single-use plastic are gaining traction – eliminating plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic microbeads – much of the world still relies on other forms of plastic. Consumer pressure helps, but much of the initiative and research depends on companies coming up with alternative materials and embracing the use of recycled plastic.

Most of all, companies must persuade consumers that pro-environment products do not come with personal sacrifice. Adopting a sustainable lifestyle can represent “a pathway to a more satisfied life,” says Kate Laffan, a behavioral scientist at the London School of Economics.

Young people who want a plastic-free future are savvy enough to know when a company is merely signaling an eco-virtue rather than acting on it. Unilever’s radical goals bear close watching for achieving results. Yet its announcement at least sets an example of how firms are trying to balance private gain with social good.

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