Can a ‘carbon rainbow’ cut CO2 emissions?

2 September 2020

Unilever has announced a €1bn “Clean Future” programme to remove fossil fuels from its cleaning products.

The programme includes introducing circular economy principles and replacing fossil fuel feedstocks used in products such as Persil, Cif and Domestos, in which carbon fuels make up 46% of their carbon footprint. 

Unilever aims to reduced laundry and cleaning products' carbon footprint by up to 20%, using a “carbon rainbow”, in which fossil fuels will be replaced by four tiers of recycled waste and biodegradable sources: carbon from CO2 emissions (purple), carbon from marine sources (blue), carbon from plants (green), and carbon from plastic waste (grey). The process to capture carbon from these sources will be powered by renewable energy.  

Peter ter Kulve, president of home care at Unilever, said: “A new bioeconomy is rising from the ashes of fossil fuels. Diversifying sources of carbon is essential to grow within the limits of our planet. Our suppliers and innovation partners play a critical role through this transition. By sharing our Carbon Rainbow model, we are calling on an economy-wide transformation in how we all use carbon.” 

The programme includes biotechnology research, CO2 and waste utilisation, and low carbon chemistry to create biodegradable and water-efficient product formulations and halve the use of virgin plastic by 2025. 

Clean Future has partnered globally, including working in Slovakia with biotechnology firm Evonik Industries “to develop the production of rhamnolipids, a renewable and biodegradable surfactant which is already used in its Sunlight dishwashing liquid in Chile and Vietnam”, according to Unilever. Also, the company sources soda ash for laundry powders from southern India using a pioneering CO2-capture technology.

Ter Kulve said: “Clean Future is our vision to radically overhaul our business. As an industry, we must break our dependence on fossil fuels, including as a raw material for our products. We must stop pumping carbon from under the ground when there is ample carbon on and above the ground if we can learn to utilise it at scale.

“We’ve heard time and time again that people want more affordable sustainable products that are just as good as conventional ones. Rapid developments in science and technology are allowing us to do this, with the promise of exciting new benefits for the people who use our products, from ultra-mild cleaning ingredients to self-cleaning clothes and surfaces.”

Uniliever said the fight against Covid-19 “should not be a reason for complacency” or distract from environmental crises.

Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF UK, commented: “The world must shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable resources that reduce pressure on our fragile ecosystems and that help to restore nature.

“These significant commitments from Unilever, combined with strong sustainable sourcing, have real potential to make an important contribution as we transition to an economy that works with nature, not against it.”

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