Hellmann’s has started transitioning its PET packaging to 100-percent-recyled content. Images: Unilever/Hellmann’s

At the end of 2019, Hellmann’s completed the transition to packing its mayonnaise and mayonnaise dressing sold in the United States in 100-percent-recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) bottles and jars. The Unilever brand is sold as Best Foods west of the Rocky Mountains. It started the transition to rPET packaging in the spring of 2019.

While it may not have been an easy change, Ben Crook, senior brand director of Dressings & Condiments for Unilever, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, says the change was necessary. “As such an iconic and major brand, we are aware of the impact we have on the planet and chose to make a difference. At Hellmann’s, we are against waste, whether it be food or plastic,” he says.

Hellmann’s Real Ketchup, Burger Sauce and Dipping Sauce products, which were released in March 2019, have not yet transitioned to the new packaging, though the company says it is exploring new opportunities to use recycled packaging for these products.

Additionally, Hellmann’s says the sleeves and caps on its rPET squeeze bottles are not made of recycled plastic, nor are the lids on its rPET jars. However, the brand says it is researching ways to make all components of its packaging from 100-percent-recycled materials.

The change to 100-percent-rPET packaging supports the brand’s commitment to “Real Taste and Less Waste” and affects approximately 200 million Hellmann’s containers per year. Across the Unilever Food & Refreshment business segment, Crook says the company expects to use more than 14,330 tons of rPET this year.

Striving for more

Hellmann’s says this move is its first step in transitioning its portfolio of products toward fully recyclable bottles and jars that are made from 100-percent-recycled materials. The brand’s commitment to using recycled plastic packaging that is also recyclable is one way it is delivering on the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (SLP), the company’s blueprint for sustainable growth. Specifically, Hellmann’s efforts will support Unilever’s goal of ensuring 100 percent of its plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

“The progress in this area has been strong,” Crook says of attaining Unilever’s plastic packaging goals. “We already have several brands in postconsumer recycled plastic. The biggest hurdle we face is the low capacity of high-quality PCR [postconsumer resin] materials.”

The Unilever SLP guides the company and its brands in their goal of reducing their environmental impact, Crook says. “It focuses on greenhouse gases, water use, waste and packaging and sustainable sourcing. The North America Food & Refreshment packaging team is responsible for driving technology and packaging strategy to ensure that we are helping create a circular economy and a culture that embeds sustainability in every aspect of our packaging program.”

Engaging the supply chain

In planning for the transition, Crook says the Hellmann’s packaging team worked closely with the Unilever supply chain to source rPET for its bottles and jars and continues to do so.

“We needed to invest in equipment that would allow us to quantify the color, transparency and haze.” – Ben Crook, senior brand director of Dressings & Condiments, Unilever

“Supplies of rPET are limited, and forecasts and commitments need to be made in order to meet our demand,” he says. “Weekly meetings were conducted with a full cross-function team to ensure that the implementation timing was met in order to deliver the program. This team made sure that all the plant trials were completed in a timely manner, artwork timing and development was completed and the business was aligned on the path forward.”

The brand’s transition to using rPET in its packaging was eased somewhat by the maturity and growth of the PET recycling sector in the U.S.

“RPET has the most mature network of suppliers in the USA,” Crook says. “The number of suppliers is limited, especially with the volumes that we must account for, but it’s growing as more plants come online and more businesses venture into the space.”

Educating consumers

In the brand’s transition to using 100 percent rPET, controlling color has been the biggest challenge, Crook says. “The more times PET is recycled, the darker in tint the material becomes. This is caused by different color bottles in the recycling stream as well as the recovery process and the application of heat to repelletize the resin.”

He adds, “We needed to invest in equipment that would allow us to quantify the color, transparency and haze.”

Hellmann’s rPET bottles and jars have a gray tint to them, which Crook says is different from what the brand’s consumers are accustomed to. He adds that Hellmann’s has “prioritized consumer education around the colored tint, ensuring food safety.”

Despite this, Crook says Hellmann’s customers have been appreciative of the change. “They are happy and proud that we are making the transition to recycled plastic to help better our planet.”

To encourage consumers to do the right thing with their empty Hellmann’s containers, the brand has started to incorporate the How2Recycle label from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which is a project of Charlottesville, Virginia-based nonprofit GreenBlue, on its packaging. Unilever North America says it is adding the label to packaging for its entire mass-market portfolio by the end of 2021.

“Unilever is actively adding How2Recycle to all of our packaging, which clearly explains to our consumers how to recycle our packaging,” Crook says. “In addition, we leverage our media outlets and websites, including the Hellmann’s webpage, to encourage people to do the right thing when disposing of our packaging and explaining our packaging changes to PCR.”

The author is the editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at dtoto@gie.net.