Closing the loop on plastic waste at Lipton: How an ambition became the norm

This interview is part of The Terrace’s ‘1.5-degree society campaign’. In this series we ask professionals: how is your organization contributing to the 1.5-degree society? And – most importantly – what can other organizations learn from your experiences? We hope to inform and inspire other businesses to do even more and accelerate their impact. 

One key shift towards a 1.5-degree society is closing the loop on waste. With a growing business there comes a downside too: an increase in sales leads to the production of more plastic waste. Lipton, a hot and iced tea brand of Unilever, has the ambition to become a fully circular brand. Bibianne Roetert worked as a brand manager at Unilever and took a leading role in making Liptons’ plastic bottles 100% recycled and fully recyclable. The Terrace spoke with her on how she took these steps. What experience can she share for other businesses to sustain and accelerate the positive change necessary for the 1.5-degree society?

When did you realize that change was needed?
That was when I calculated, together with my colleagues, the impact of the plastic production of our bottles. It turned out to be immense. Yearly we use 1.400 tonnes of plastic for 60 million bottles. When making our plastic bottles recycled and recyclable, we reduce the CO2 impact with more than 40%. After a three-day conference back in 2018, in which one of the days was totally devoted to sustainability, we became very motivated in changing the course of our plastic use. I also had a personal urge and conviction that there was still a lot of value to be added to Lipton as a brand, which could contribute more to our planet. Only looking at monetary profits did not satisfy me when the plastic pile was growing together with the growth of the brand. Still, there was not yet a concrete plan on paper on what I thought I could do about it.

How did that go?
My manager challenged me to create this plan and I asked him for 2 months to understand the full lifecycle of plastic bottles in order to build a plan on ambitious yet realistic targets. He agreed. During those months I learned about the benefits of using recycled plastic and investigated whether Lipton could start with making all Dutch festival bottles from 100% recycled plastic, which could significantly lower our impact. That is where we wanted to start. While we were still investigating whether we could move all bottles to 100% rPET, we already started our communication during ADE Green 2018. There we pledged to be a fully circular brand at festivals in 2019. By already communicating about this bold step towards festivals and consumers, the ball started to roll faster and further.

How did that feel?
That was a cool and exciting time. We already promised the festival audience to make steps forward, so going back wasn’t an option anymore. Because we had made it so tangible, the urge was really there to get all the (technical) heads together and go for the grail.

It almost seems that you were running a political campaign and you were advocating to create a movement…
Sometimes it almost felt like that, there was such a clear mission. The advantage was that people saw me as the lead on this journey and knew that they could ask me anything about this topic so they could become experts too. There was a lot of respect and excitement that Lipton was taking a leading role in using recycled plastic.

In the end, you – and eventually your company – get the most energy by setting targeted and ambitious goals. Especially when you reach them!

It sounds like a fairy-tale, but no change comes without bumps on the road, I can imagine?
Exactly, the biggest obstacles were the technical implications. For example, there seemed to be a lack of availability of high quality recycled plastic in the beginning and along the way there were challenges with running all the tests in the factories in time. At those times I sometimes worried that we’d had to withdraw our commitment.

Yet, you did not?
Certainly not, we succeeded in making all the festival bottles of 100% recycled plastic in 2019. In fact, all our Lipton bottles in the Netherlands and Belgium are 100% recycled and fully recyclable since Q1 2020. We were the first soft drink brand to realize 100% rPET usage on such a scale in the Netherlands. We are now rolling this out to all the other countries in which Lipton is sold. We notice that the sentiment around the brand has positively changed. Also, we see internally that everyone believes in the brand and its mission, which results in a good and proactive atmosphere. It created a lot of wins in the end.

You now switched to Unox, another Unilever brand, a few months ago. What kind of experience would you share with other professionals working on similar challenges?
First, always try to understand how the lifecycle of your product works. What possible improvements are there to make? You have to gather as much knowledge as possible so that you can put everything in perspective. This is important for every industry, from plastics to meat. Second, pick one point on the horizon so everyone knows where to follow you. And last but not least: consistently keep moving towards that point. And this is easier said than done.

Are there any thoughts/last famous words you would like to share?
Ultimately, a lot of people are not aware of the impact they could personally make. They say: “I think it’s special and I understand it’s important, but in my company it is not (yet) possible”. I think it is important to motivate people and let them think more critically about what role they can play in a company, and that more is possible than you might think. Challenge yourself and don’t be afraid to challenge your surroundings. In the end, you – and eventually your company – get the most energy by setting targeted and ambitious goals. Especially when you reach them! Mark my words: Ultimately anyone can do it. It is possible in all companies and in all cases. It’s about turning your (sky-high) ambitions into actions, as we did by introducing our 100% festival bottle.

In this series, The Terrace asks its network how they are contributing to the 1.5-degree society and what other organizations can learn from that. Last time we spoke with Lipton on how they are closing the loop on plastic waste. The last time we spoke with ASICS about their dare to focus.