The race to reduce plastic waste: how close are we to sustainable packaging?

Plastic packaging. Bring up the topic with nearly anyone and opinions will not likely be warm. Too much of it is making its way into oceans and waterways. Too much of it is currently not recyclable. It’s derived from a non-renewable resource.

But does it have an overall lower carbon footprint than some other materials that could be used in its place? It does. Is it more versatile, affordable and in some cases safer than, say, glass? Well, yes.

General consensus holds that something needs to be done to address the environmental problems connected to plastic, but for a material so multi-faceted, solutions won’t be straightforward. And they won’t come overnight.

Someone who knows this all too well is Dannielle Borger. She is the head of packaging sustainability within laundry and home care for global consumer goods company Henkel. Although not a household name, some of the brands Henkel owns are Persil, Pritt Stick and Schwarzkopf, to name a few. Like most major corporations, Henkel sets overarching targets that help guide more specific strategies. “Our targets are very clear and are top of mind for everyone [at Henkel],” says Borger. She’s referring to what Henkel calls its 100-50-zero strategy: by 2025, 100% of its packaging should be reusable or recyclable; fossil-based virgin plastics should be reduced by 50%; and there should be zero plastic waste into nature. “Besides this, we are continuously working on improving our product design in order to further reduce plastic,” Borger adds.

So how’s that going?

100% reusable or recyclable packaging
For this target, progress is going well. Within the laundry and home care department Henkel has achieved 89% reusable or recyclable packaging, says Borger, with a figure not too far off that within their beauty and adhesives divisions. But achieving that last 11% will be tricky, she adds.

Flexible packaging, that is the use of non-rigid materials, is one area that still has many hurdles to overcome on the road to recyclability. Not only is it non-recyclable in many regions, it can also affect the recyclability of other packaging. Think about a bottle of detergent that has a plastic label on it. “If the consumer doesn’t take the sleeve off, your packaging simply ends up in incineration,” says Borger. To address this, she says Henkel has done a big drive to include messaging on bottles to encourage people to remove the sleeve and recycle the bottle, adding that this type of communication is actually now required by law in the EU.

But wouldn’t it be better to simply phase out all plastic sleeves? Yes, ideally. But interestingly, they do serve a purpose that relates to another sustainability point.

Reducing fossil-based virgin plastic packaging by 50%
When you incorporate recycled content into plastics, the resulting colour is often greyish or, depending on the type of plastic, opaque. For consumers, this can sometimes be off putting. Objectively speaking, if the options are a virgin plastic bottle in the white colour you’re used to, or a grey-coloured bottle made from recycled plastic, surely for the sake of a more sustainable world we’d all choose the grey bottle. A bottle of detergent isn’t placed on your mantelpiece, after all. But Borger says a lot of people are just not there yet: “Consumers are not yet open to greyish bottles.”

Which brings us back to plastic sleeves. An attractively designed, full-cover label on a bottle will hide its dull colour. This does seem a stop-gap solution but, encouragingly, Borger says more and more people in the future will be willing to make compromises. In market research tests, Henkel found that the group of consumers it calls “eco enthusiasts”, is growing. Eco enthusiasts are defined as people who always choose the more sustainable option even if that means sacrificing on other aspects, such as aesthetics. In a recent German study, about 30% of customers surveyed were identified as eco enthusiasts.

Incorporating more recycled plastic into packaging is a key lever to achieving Henkel’s target to reduce fossil-based virgin plastic. Another way it’s doing this is through material swaps. “Aluminium is a perfect circular economy material for packaging because it can be recycled forever,” says Philippe Blank, head of circular economy and sustainability packaging within Henkel beauty care. Indeed, the metal can be infinitely recycled without losing its quality, unlike plastic, which degrades over time. According to industry body The Aluminum Association, 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in circulation today.

But it’s not just a case of making the switch and calling it a day. “Mining bauxite, which is the starting element in creating virgin aluminium, is quite a dirty business,” says Blank. “Also, the initial creation of primary aluminium is a very energy intensive process. So that’s the opposite side of the game.”

So what about using recycled aluminium in packaging? Indeed, Blank says it takes less than 10% of the energy needed to create recycled aluminium, compared with virgin. “You have a huge footprint advantage [when it comes] to recycled aluminium.”

With that in mind, Henkel has decided to gradually switch its entire hair coloration tube portfolio from virgin to recycled aluminium – across all brands.

Zero plastic waste into nature
While the first two targets are easily quantifiable, controlling what makes its way into nature and what doesn’t, is decidedly less so. But Borger says that making progress against the first two targets automatically means they make progress against the third. To some extent, this will be true. But business does not have ultimate control over government-run waste management systems or consumer choices.

Which leads us to Plastic Bank. The social enterprise works in coastal areas around the world, providing work for disadvantaged communities who collect plastic waste in and around waterways. The waste is exchanged for premiums that help provide basic family necessities such as groceries, cooking fuel, school tuition and health insurance. It’s then processed and used by Plastic Bank’s partner companies, such as Henkel, SC Johnson and Aldi, for use in their packaging.

Related: The future of packaging: can a shift in product design end the plastic waste crisis?

For large companies that want to secure a direct supply of recycled materials, partnering with Plastic Bank gives them this opportunity. Because, as Borger says: “The demand is getting very high for recycled [plastic], but the materials are simply not available. Or not available in the quality that we would like.”

On the road to reducing plastic within business supply chains, it’s easy to get fixated on numbers, goals and strategies. But for David Katz, founder and CEO of Plastic Bank, it’s not about high-level targets or corporate promises. Although he deals with business executives on a regular basis – albeit those primarily from family-run businesses, like Henkel, he points out – for him it’s about paradigm shifts rather than policies and percentages.

“We’re pioneers of a regenerative economy,” he says, pointing out that he would place Plastic Bank in this category rather than the circular economy. “Because circularity speaks to doing no more damage, but we’re beyond the place of not doing any more damage. So much damage has been done. We need to repair it.”

Click here to read more on the circular economy as a guiding principle

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