Karen McVeigh and Gemma Holliani Cahya in Jakarta – Five years ago, Unilever announced a "radical recycling" process aimed at tackling a huge waste scourge it helped to create: billions of single-use sachets that litter south-east Asia's landfills, pollute its waterways and wash up on its beaches.
The "sachet economy" of single servings at low prices, targeting poorer consumers, began across much of the developing world in the 1990s. Sold at shops and stalls across south-east Asia and Africa, these brightly coloured palm-sized packets contain everything from shampoo to coffee. But their size and multilayered structure render them almost impossible to collect and recycle. In Indonesia, which lacks the infrastructure to deal with waste, they represent the ultimate symbol of throwaway culture, making up 16% of all plastic waste.
Indonesia produces 7.8m tonnes of plastic waste a year, according to the World Bank, 4.9m tonnes of which is uncollected, dumped or left at improperly managed landfills. An estimated 4.5% of this plastic waste – or about 350,000 tonnes – ends up in the ocean.
To tackle this growing problem, Unilever launched a waste-collection scheme in Indonesia in 2017, which it said would help "empower" waste-pickers, who are responsible for recycling much of the country's plastic waste and are among its poorest and most marginalised workers.
At the same time, the company launched a pilot recycling plant using a system called CreaSolv that promised to recycle sachets into new products as part of Unilever's pledge to ensure all of its plastic packaging was fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Unilever said the plant in Sidoarjo, East Java, was designed to recover polyethylene, which accounts for more than 60% of the sachets' layers, to produce high-quality polymers, which are then made into new sachets.
But Indonesian rubbish collectors, organisations representing waste-pickers and environmental organisations tell a different story. Unilever stopped the collection scheme underpinning the project abruptly, they told the Guardian, leaving uncollected waste piling up outside waste banks.
Some waste collectors, unable to find buyers for the uncollected sachet waste, burned it to allow for more lucrative waste streams, creating air pollution. Meanwhile, waste pickers who work on landfill sites said they were no better off, as sachet waste is too low in value to collect.
The scheme was an "expensive failure", said Yobel Novian Putra, the clean-energy officer at the non-profit organisation Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia) Indonesia.
Putra's organisation published a report in January concluding that the Unilever scheme had failed owing to low recyclability and the low value of the waste. "It is a lot of effort to collect sachet waste and the price is very low," said Putra, who added: "Unilever has not empowered waste-pickers and provided them with an income."
The Guardian's findings follow a Reuters report last year, which cited two people involved in Unilever's CreaSolv plant who alleged that plans for building a full-scale operation had been dropped. It was not commercially viable, they told Reuters, because of the cost of collection, sorting and cleaning the sachets.
Unilever denied the report's findings, saying the plant was still operating and that it was "actively working" to scale up its technology. In a statement, Unilever said the pilot plant had been severely disrupted by Covid, which had affected its collection service.
In Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia's second-largest city, an hour from Unilever's new recycling plant, operators of local waste banks, or "bank sampahs", said sachet waste had been piling up since Unilever stopped collecting it.
Sutarti, a veteran waste trader of 15 years from Bangkingan village, accepts almost every kind of non-organic waste – from plastic bags to glass bottles. But she never used to collect sachets as she was unable to find a buyer.
About five years ago, Unilever approached her waste bank. "They said they would buy our sachet waste," said Sutarti. "They also gave us some funds to start it." She was enthusiastic.
"I bought [sachet waste] for around 500 rupiah [3p] per one kilogram, then Unilever bought it from us for around 800 rupiah," she said, earning her a modest profit of 300 rupiah a kilo.
After two years, however, the scheme stopped. Unilever told her there was a fire at the factory processing the waste and that it had to end sachet collections, she said. "Last year they told us that they would continue it again but there is still no news."
She has been left with sachet waste piling up and nowhere to put it. "No one wants to buy them," Sutarti said, "I tried to keep them. But we don't have a place to store them so I've been trying to burn them little by little every day."
Other waste banks are also struggling to dispose of the sachet waste Unilever offered to buy.
Erna Utami, head of operations at a bank sampah at Babatan Pilang, a suburb of Surabaya, said Unilever helped build and manage the facility, before the collection of sachet waste stopped in 2017.
"There are still three sacks of sachet waste left in our place," Utami said. "We are very disappointed. We have been trying to report this problem to the government and the company in every seminar or meeting about waste that we attend."
Shanti Wurdiani Ramadhani, who helps manage the bank sampah in Jombang regency, East Java, said it had about a tonne of unclaimed waste sachets.
"We tried to store the sachet waste that people have collected because we don't want them to burn them or throw them into the river," Shanti said. She has since asked her members to stop sending the waste, because they ran out of storage space. The price Unilever paid waste banks for sachet waste was too low, compared with the price for other waste, she added.
Pris Polly Lengkong, head of the Independent Indonesia Scavengers' Associations (PPIM), a group with 3.7 million members, said sachets were the least valuable type of waste. Scavengers working at Bantar Gebang, south-east Asia's biggest landfill, located about 20 miles (32km) from Jakarta, only make about 1.5p per kg from sachets. By comparison, plastic bottles fetch 20p a kilo and even a kilo of plastic bags is worth about 7p.
"In the mountains of waste in Bantar Gebang you might find loads of multilayer sachet waste," said Lengkong, who works as a middleman buying waste from scavengers and selling it on. "They cannot be absorbed by scavengers because they don't get any value for them," he said.
Sales of sachets are predicted to increase by an annual growth rate of 5.8% between 2021 and 2031, according to one market report.
While many countries have banned single-use plastic, few cover sachet waste, with some exceptions such as Sri Lanka, which prohibited some sachets last year.
Last September, Coca-Cola's subsidiary in the Philippines pledged to phase out sachets and plastic straws in the country, ahead of a law to ban plastic straws and coffee stirrers.
The chief executive of Unilever, Alan Jope, has called for end to sachets, saying they were "pretty much impossible to mechanically recycle" and so had "no real value". However, the company privately lobbied against bans proposed in India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Reuters reported in June.
A Unilever spokesperson said that it continued to work with governments on solutions such as replacing multilayered sachets with recyclable alternatives, adding: "We need to consider whether technical alternatives are both viable at scale and affordable for low-income consumers whilst also ensuring they don't lead to unintended consequences.
"We've been trialling the use of CreaSolv technology at our Indonesian pilot plant, where our initial work has addressed the technical and commercial viability of the technology."
The company said it had been able to recycle the polyethylene from multilayered sachets to produce "high-quality polymers", which are then used in its packaging.
Unilever declined to explain how it would achieve its aim of making all packaging, including sachets, reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
"Our work at the pilot plant has been severely disrupted due to Covid-19, which has impacted all parts of our trial, including the collection of sachets as feedstock for the plant. The plant remains operational and we are actively working with other partners to determine the feasibility of scaling this technology," the spokesperson said.
For campaigners such as Putra, the company needs to do much more to tackle the waste scourge it has created. He said, "Unilever is pushing the problem of their difficult-to-recycle material on to our communities. They created the market and it is their responsibility to solve it."