To the letter10 February 2020
As a leading consumer goods company with a big footprint in plastic packaging, Procter & Gamble is among the first companies to develop a strategy to manage their plastic use – a key deliverable being the reduction by 30% of all plastic across Europe in its fabric care business by 2025. Guillaume Lebert, sustainability senior scientist, speaks to Matthew Rogerson about achieving these and other sustainable goals.
Plastic is a problem. As well as its propensity to hang around in landfill or block up waterways and clog oceans, it is seen as the embodiment of packaging waste and the main target of sustainable development in recent years. Though it used to be enough to reduce the weight of the plastic being created, consumers today are demanding more and brands are actively addressing this.
“A 30% reduction in the amount of plastics we use equals 15,000t; that’s the equivalent of a continuous line of detergent bottles forming a chain around the world,” explains Guillaume Lebert, sustainability senior scientist at Procter and Gamble, “It is an enormous amount, I use the circling the world analogy as it provides a more dramatic visual on the sheer scale we are talking about!”
It is an excellent starting point. Most consumers can’t see the wood for the trees when it comes to sustainability as they don’t have a deep enough understanding or the market, however Lebert quickly outlines the key issues at stake.
“Sustainability is a large, complex and dynamic subject, and if there was a simple solution to resolve all potential issues we would have arrived at it many years ago.” Lebert says P&G uses life-cycle analysis to trace where the energy and resources are used to locate where there is waste or opportunity to be more efficient. Packaging, while it is the focus of me in the packaging industry represents only about 5% of the energy footprint in laundry; the far bigger impact is washing at 40 degrees which is responsible for 65% energy use.
So, from an energy standpoint, strides in packaging efficiency would be similar to concentrating on the key hole when there is no back wall, and what is needed is a way to reduce the energy consumption at home as that provides the biggest win?
“Absolutely” concurs Lebert, “that’s why providing the same quality of wash at 30 degrees counters a major energy loss and is the type of action that makes a more meaningful impact”
What sustainability means or how it is perceived can also differ country by country. “Currently only Netherlands and Germany can recycle monomaterials plastic bags, but soon France will be able to. This in turn influences what we can make our packaging from in the future,” says Lebert, “there is no point in providing light-weighted pouches for the liquid laundry business, if the packaging is not recyclable while the bottle it replaces is, as we are leaving ourselves another issue to resolve and not really finding a solution that is sustainable. “
The circular economy is a major topic at the front of mind in manufacturing in Europe and with good reason. By reducing or removing virgin polymers or materials being required, vast amounts of energy can be saved and a major dent in waste can be achieved. “I use the analogy of Thatcher’s comment that “people want their money back” and change it to ‘I want my plastic back’.”
“Control is the key. When I am making the product I can ensure that everything is used, there is no waste, and its footprint is minimal. By passing this to the consumer for them to use, I lose this management, and I also lose the packaging and material. I need the consumer to put it into the correct waste stream, the reclaim companies to stream and recycle the materials and sell it back to me and only then can I regain this manufacturing oversight.”
“The issue with this is that consumers do not have the right information, or conflicting messages which means that they revert to default when home recycling or disposing of products, which is to say put it in the garbage. Then it’s lost, we want to get it back.”
Which is why one of the major developments is a pilot program with Teracycle called “Loop”. Brand owners involved include P&G, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars Petcare, Coca-Cola European Partners, Mondelez International, Danone, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Lesieur, BIC and Beiersdorf. In addition, Carrefour will be the key retail partner in France, and other partners include UPS and Suez. Piloting in Paris and New York this year, a wider rollout could follow in short order if it’s a success.
The programme is very simple; consumers will go to the special Loop website or partner retailer’s websites and shop for trusted brands now redesigned to be packaging waste-free. They receive their durable products in an exclusively designed state-of-the-art shipping tote that eliminates the need for single-use shipping materials like cardboard boxes. There is no need to clean and dispose of the package; as consumers finish their products, they place the empty package into the tote. Loop will pick-up directly from their home. Their team of scientists have developed custom cleaning technologies so that each product may be safely reused. Products are promptly replenished as needed and the refilled, reused tote is returned to the consumer. If there is recoverable used product such as diapers, pads, razors or brush parts, they will be recovered to be reused or recycled.
“It is an incredible programme with such wide potential,” enthuses Lebert. “Historically we had tried a refill station in supermarkets which was not successful as caused more problems than it solved, chief of which is that consumers don’t have the resources to properly clean their used bottles, and we didn’t have the manufacturing overview to ensure that everything was made to our high standards.”
“But now, consumers get to use their product as usual, they do not have to think about how to dispose of their packaging and we ‘get our plastics back’ ready to re-use. According to the most recent research, if we can re-use that bottle three times it will have offset a single journey of non-recyclable materials, and gets us a giant step closer to a circular economy.”
This is only one part of the company’s sustainability strategy. By 2022 the Fabric Care Europe group aim to make all brand packaging 100% recyclable. Some, like Ariel and Lenor are increasing the use of post-consumer recycled content in their packaging, to add to the already 50% in place today. By 2025 the aim is to remove 30% plastics from fabric care products and ultimately 100% recycled plastic content in all packaging. “With today’s methods you always get some issues of contamination with the product that it came with before, says Lebert. There are some solutions being developed by the recycling industry that we are partnering with to enable this future packaging circularity objective.”
One of the biggest challenges in sustainability, as Lebert confirms, is that, “there is no silver bullet to solve all sustainability problems. Each time we look at the solution we need to look at the lifecycle analysis and the environmental footprint of that solution. We need to make sure that we are doing the right thing and also helping our suppliers to do the right thing.”
“We have to make sure that the one we choose has a positive impact on the planet. In addition, sustainability is not always an easy story to communicate to the consumer. We are always looking for more effective ways to engage with all our consumers across our products as individuals to properly talk to them on a personal level, so that they are truly informed and can make the most responsible decisions for them”.
Education and partnerships are key to addressing this challenge and engaging with all stakeholders effectively concludes Lebert. “We need to educate the consumer so that they know it is important. You will see us being a lot more vocal about it. We are also looking at how can we increase bio-based material in our products. Packaging will be a part of this to drive our 2030 goals on recyclability. We want to ensure that no plastic packaging finds its way to the ocean. All our liquid laundry bottles in Europe are made with 25% recycled plastic, all our fabric conditioner bottles in Europe are made with 50% recycled plastic. We want to make sure that we put a lot of recycled content in our packaging to create a circular economy.”
By increasing the washing effectiveness of their products at lower temperatures, taking their plastic back to be reused and without losing materials to single use journeys and through innovative partnerships and education, Lebert and the team hope to reduce waste and be part of a clean, sparkling future that matches the clothes they clean at P&G.
How P&G brands are using Loop
In order to move away from disposable plastic bottles, Pantene will use unique aluminium bottles that can be cleaned, refilled and reused as part of the Loop system.
Tide has created purclean, a plant-based laundry detergent; the new bottle is stainless steel, with twist-cap and easy pour spout. Refillable bottle returns to Loop who clean refill and return it.
Cascade is also using a refillable bottle that Loop will take from you, clean, sterilize and refill ready to be used again.
Crest’s mouthwash will come in a glass bottle with replenishment coming straight to consumers door so no need to carry heavy items around, as well as removing single use plastic.
Refillable packs are found with Ariel too, so no more packaging to discard or items to carry home from supermarket.
Febreze have launched an innovation called Febreze ONE in US and Zero% in Europe that comes in reusable and recyclable packaging.
Oral-B will test circular solutions for both its electric rechargeable and manual toothbrushes. It joins Loop with Oral-B CLIC, a new design that reduces plastic waste through a handle made out of a unique composite material, and equipped with a unique mechanism that allows consumers to only exchange the brush head. The Loop platform will in parallel recycle used brush heads for both manual and electrical brushes.
Gillette and Gillette Venus will both provide means to recycle cartridges and razor heads with a premium travel case instead of clamshell packaging for Men and an updated more sustainable design for Venus.
Pampers and Always will use Fater’s advance technology to recycle diapers to higher value applications. Loop will be the pilot for a new technology designed in Italy and available in the French market - a reusable bin for will be shipped to your consumer containing Pampers and Always products. The bin is hermetically sealed and contains a carbon filter to obstruct odour. Used diapers and pads are put it the bin, and when full it is picked up, cleaned and returned, restocked with products.