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Rinse, refill, repeat

P&G Beauty strikes a major blow to plastic waste with its new refill system including a reusable aluminium shampoo bottle and recyclable¹ pouch that uses 60% less plastic²

P&G Beauty is taking a leap of faith on the European consumer. With the launch of its refillable aluminium bottle system in Europe for its hair care brands Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Herbal Essences and Aussie.

Obviously, the consumer goods giant has done its research, and there appears to be a strong appetite for less packaging and less waste. But how this will translate into changed behaviours is essentially untested.

Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, works with every major cosmetic company in the world, helping them to be more sustainable. He says this is the first time he has seen a large company with mainstream brands create a refillable bottle at scale, out of an alloy. “From a supply chain point of view, this is a big undertaking. Hopefully, it will inspire other organisations to do the same and create a movement where we start buying more of our shampoos in reusable systems versus single use systems.”

There is certainly reason for optimism. “When we started researching this, we found packaging waste was very much top-of-mind,” says Virginie Helias, Chief Sustainability Officer at P&G. “Over-packaging was a deterrent to purchase. All things being equal, the consumer would buy the product with less packaging.”

This was backed up by a recent IPSOS survey of changing consumer habits, post-Covid. More than three-quarter of respondents said that they would avoid products with too much packaging.

“Consumers want to do their bit for the environment and are asking big brands to act fast and enable them to make better, more sustainable choices at home,” says Artur Litarowicz, P&G’s Senior Vice President for Hair Care Europe. “The new aluminium shampoo refill bottle we are launching across our four hair care brands, is durable and it has been designed to allow consumers to reuse it, over and over. The new aluminium bottles will allow consumers to use the product they love without wasting packaging.”

Reduce, reuse, recycle

P&G Beauty is also set to reduce its virgin plastic usage in its main hair care brands by 50% in the next year, and combined with the distribution of the shampoo refill system will halt the production of the equivalent of 300 million virgin plastic bottles a year from 2021 enabling the 200 million European house holds its serves³ to recycle, reduce and reuse.

While sustainable pack design appears entirely within a company’s control, even here, wider cooperation is required. “There is a wide spectrum of quality in recycled plastic,” says Ms Helias. “Most of the plastic we use is ‘food’ grade, which, you could argue, is overdesigned. But there is a meagre supply of high-quality recycled plastic, because there is nothing much between food grade and very poor quality. To unlock this supply shortage, the industry must collectively define a wider spectrum of grades, so we don’t all go for food grade where supply is limited.”

Meanwhile, the problem of plastic waste is growing. This year is expected to see a 30% increase in the amount of plastic waste littering our oceans, largely as a result of the huge increase in plastic products used to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, Ms Helias notes that the problem is not inherently any material, but our behaviour: “Actually plastic is one of the most sustainable materials. The issue is the litter of plastic in the environment.”

One way to make sure plastic doesn’t end up in the ocean is to not make it in the first place.

“Even if we call it ‘responsible’, a lot of plastic is still being incinerated,” says TerraCycle’s Mr Szaky. “And every time we make a new bottle, we must extract more oil from the ground, extract a huge amount of energy to make it, and for a relatively short life cycle.”

TerraCycle operates Loop, a circular waste system that allows consumers to drop off their empties at participating retailers, which are then washed and reused by someone else. It’s basically the standard system for industrial economies pre-Second World War, before it was replaced by a throw-away convenience culture. But reintroducing re-usage into twenty-first century supply chains and lifestyles is very complex.

P&G was the first adopter of Loop, and it is being rolled out across Western Europe, with more than 100 consumer goods companies now signed up. This is different to P&G’s refillable aluminium bottle scheme, which is a bottle to keep and refill at home, but Mr Szaky is supportive.

“Loop requires sizeable infrastructure whereas the refill bottle can happen now. This is a good way to bring concept to consumers early. I think the answer to sustainability is: move on all these tangents simultaneously and don’t assume there is a silver bullet.”

He also believes the aluminium bottle concept is an enabler of the Loop system because it will show data and consumer insights on how people are reacting to refillables and make negotiations with retailers in other countries easier. Similarly, it was P&G’s early experience of Loop that gave it the confidence to go ahead with its new shampoo refill system.

“We are accelerating our sustainability goals not because we have to but because we want to,” says Mr Litarowicz. “We have a vision that by 2030 our packaging will be 100% recyclable or reusable globally. By 2025, 90% of our major packaging platforms will be recyclable or reusable across P&G Beauty globally.”

Beautiful behaviour

But the main challenge is not so much technological, or even logistical, as behavioural. Loop relies on a significant change in consumer behaviour, and P&G’s shampoo refill system is only as responsible as the person using it.

“Refillable aluminium bottles have to go around multiple times before they are better than disposable,” says Mr Szaky. “If you buy an aluminium bottle, use it once and recycle it – that is a disservice to the planet.

Ms Helias says that sustainability break-even for the aluminium bottle is 6-10 cycles. “The design is made to last much longer than that.”

Despite the encouraging consumer sentiment, P&G Beauty isn’t relying purely on people’s good conscience to adopt the new scheme.

“This is also a design driven initiative,” says Ms Helias. “The bottles are beautiful. One of our mottos is making sustainability irresistible – and that’s what this does. Even if you are not at all environmentally conscious, you may want to be part of this, because it’s so much nicer than the single-use shampoo bottle.”

How fast adoption will be is difficult to predict, but Ms Helias is quietly confident. “My personal opinion and also based on what we’ve seen, it will really stick and go faster than we might expect. I’m looking forward to seeing how consumers respond.”

¹ Where collected. Not recyclable in Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland due to lack of local recycling facilities
² per mL vs. your standard brand bottle
³ Source: Kantar Worldpanel

The Reuters editorial and news staff had no role in the production of this content. It was created by Reuters Plus, part of the commercial advertising group. To work with Reuters Plus, contact us here.

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