Working towards a sustainable environment

EXCLUSIVE: Procter and Gamble’s principal scientist and packaging technologist, Gian De Belder, has outlined the companies five-pillar approach to improving the recyclability of its packaging through science-based studies and “Holy Grail” collaborative projects.

<p>To date, P&G has ensured that 86% of its product packaging is either recyclable or that programmes are in place to create the ability to recycle it</p>

To date, P&G has ensured that 86% of its product packaging is either recyclable or that programmes are in place to create the ability to recycle it

In April 2018, P&G, owner of household brands such as Ariel, Gillette, Fairy, Pampers and Head & Shoulders, unveiled a new suite of 2030 sustainability targets, having achieved many of its goals for 2020. The new strategy includes a goal to ensure all packaging is 100% recyclable or reusable by 2030.

In recent weeks, P&G has built on this ambition with a plethora of commitments focusing on its packaging. At the Walmart Annual Sustainability Milestone meeting in April, the company announced it would reduce global use of virgin petroleum plastic in packaging by 50% by 2030. Following that, a commitment was made to ensure that P&G Fabric Care brands reach full recyclability by 2022 across all packaging.

Speaking exclusively to edie, P&G’s principal scientist and packaging technologist, Gian De Belder, outlined how the company aims to accelerate progress against these commitments by harnessing innovation across a five-pillar approach to packaging recyclability.

“For me, there is a need to really focus on the recyclability aspect of a product, but ensuring that this covers design, consumers and sorting aspects,” De Belder told edie. “I would like a harmonised European-wide approach.

“What I see too often is too many different design guidelines, which isn’t going to help. How can we design one product that can be shipped and handled by all the different Member States, if they all have different processes and standards? It’s impossible.”

For the P&G Fabric Care brands, which include Ariel and Lenor, a 30% reduction in plastics use is being targeted across Europe by 2025, reducing plastics use by more than 15,000 tonnes annually. The first step on this journey will see Ariel Pods move from round tubs to bags, a move alone that will save 75% of packaging per wash.

Designing for circularity

Reduction in packaging is seen as a key element of the pillar one of P&G’s packaging approach, which focuses on “designing for circularity”.

To date, P&G has ensured that 86% of its product packaging is either recyclable or that programmes are in place to create the ability to recycle it.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), just 14% of global plastic packaging ends up in recycling infrastructure, while 40% ends up in landfill and a third in ecosystems such as the oceans. By 2050, it is estimated there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the world’s oceans.

De Belder, who has been awarded the EU Plastics Recycling Ambassador of the Year Award, believes that there is a “lack of harmonised” design principles across Europe, leading to manufacturers designing packaging in siloes, rather than across an entire industry to help improve recyclability.

P&G has taken notable steps to collaborate on this area and is notably a member of the Circular Economy 100 (CE100), the innovation platform launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to accelerate circular economy ambitions.

Pillars Two and Three of the approach focus on consumer involvement in a closed-loop system for packaging. A major issue in the ongoing plastics crisis is that many products that are fully recyclable aren’t ending up in the facilities that can successfully handle them.

Two major problems that occur at a packaging’s post-consumer “end-of-life” phase is that the public either doesn’t have access to waste collections for recycling, or lack the knowledge and understanding of how the packaging can be recycled. While Pillar Three focuses on consumer education through brand-led messaging, it is Pillar Two that aims to create more access for collection of packaging.

P&G is among the 24 corporate co-founders of a new ‘waste-free’ retail platform, whereby businesses will provide product refills while retaining ownership of their reusable packaging. The platform, called Loop and founded by recycling firm TerraCycle, will enable shoppers to purchase refillable versions of food and drink, health and beauty and cleaning products, as well as office supplies, online. Once they have used the products, TerraCycle will collect the empty packaging from their homes for cleaning and refilling, with any damaged or end-of-life packaging sent for recycling. 

The company is also part of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), which committed more than $1bn (£777m) as part of a new alliance aimed at eliminating plastic waste in the environment.

Business members will partner with cities to design integrated waste management systems in areas where infrastructure is lacking. The Alliance will also work with other city-focused programmes such as  Project STOP, a business-led initiative aiming to prevent plastic pollution from leaking into waterways and oceans across South-East Asia.

AEPW will provide funding to The Incubator Network by Circulate Capital to develop technologies and business models that prevent ocean plastic waste. It will also create an open source, science-based global information project to assist waste management projects across the globe.

For De Belder, it is the science-based approach that could have a huge impact on improving the recyclability of packaging.

“For the next year we have been given conditional permissions to work with competitors and the industry to come up with the same techniques and technologies across the EU,” he added. “We need science-based guidelines to ensure the approach is correct and enables the circular economy,”

Holy Grail

The science-based approach is arguably having its biggest impact in Pillars Four and Five of P&G’s packaging commitment strategy. Pillar Four focuses on the separation of materials from P&G’s packaging to ensure that it can all be recycled. It is here where science-based innovation is having a disruptive impact.

In the UK, there is an inconsistency between collected household waste and that which is actually recycled. A key barrier in this area is the infrastructure and collection process that is currently in place.

P&G is pioneering the “Holy Grail” project, which aims to place digital watermarks on packaging, so they can be identified by a range of key stakeholders.

Traditional recycling infrastructure uses high-speed sorting lines for packaging, with UV lighting and detection technologies used to sort the packaging. However, these facilities struggle to detect black pigments, for example, as well as differentiating types of contaminated plastics. The Holy Grail project would place digital watermarks on all packaging as codes, which are readable by the sorting lines and cameras, so that they can be separated to ensure they are recycled successfully.

The digital watermarks would also be visible to consumers, via smartphone cameras, and could be used to further enhance the educational messaging around the packaging, as well as retail-led information on the product.

The Holy Grail project has been introduced by Pioneer Projects, a collaborative initiative formed by members of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy. Alongside P&G other members assisting with Holy Grail include Henkel, TerraCycle and Veolia.

While demo runs of the technology are still required, De Belder claimed that the watermarks have a huge potential to reshape approaches to use of post-consumer packaging.

“While a key focus is recyclability and harmonised design guidelines, a second and equally important focus is the implementation of digital watermarks by identifying test markets within Europe,” De Belder added. “The industry has a huge interest to drive this and we need to form a consortium of interested partners to move to this direction.

“We need to carefully watch how the industry is evolving, particularly how retailers are using these watermarks for other purposes. If retail pushes for it, the packaging becomes intelligent, but we can use it for recycling purposes. It can bring a huge benefit.”

Another aspect of this pillar is the ability to separate different types of materials, either at a consumer or facility level, to improve recyclability. P&G’s R&D team are working on perforated sleeves on plastic packaging, which can easily be removed for improved recyclability. In the UK, this will equate to annual plastic reductions of 4,300 tonnes by 2025 – a 45% decline compared to 2018.

Product innovation

Pillar Five focuses on product innovation and aims to spur the market for recycled content. As well as improving the recyclability of its packaging, P&G is aiming to utilise more post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics as part of the aforementioned 50% reduction in virgin plastics being targeted.

P&G has used more than 34,000 metric tonnes of PCR in packaging, putting the firm one-third of the way to its goal.

P&G has transformed one of its most recognisable brands, Fairy washing up liquid, to be packaged in bottles made completely from PCR plastic and repurposed ocean plastic. The bottles will consist of 10% ocean plastic and also help form part of the consumer engagement pieces by making the public aware of the issue of ocean plastics.

P&G also modified another of its best-performing brands, through Head & Shoulders shampoo. These bottles contain up to 25% post-consumer recycled (PCR) beach plastic and have seen the packaging change from white to dark grey to accommodate the new materials.

Elsewhere, the company has championed technology from US-based recycling innovation firm PureCycle, which applies chemical additives to contaminated or coloured polypropylene plastic waste, separating coloured dyes, odours, dirt and food and drink waste from the plastic itself using a contained reaction process.

This enables the plastic to be more easily incorporated in new products and packaging, as it is of higher quality and value. At present, issues of contamination, colour detection and low quality or value mean that just 1% of all polypropylene plastic produced in the US is recycled.

The new recycling method has been developed and licensed by P&G. It is set to be used at an industrial scale for the first time in 2020, when PureCycle is due to open a new recycling plant in Ohio. P&G will be the plant’s main customer, but Nestlé has confirmed that it will also source recycled content streams from the facility.

edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Hub

edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Hub – a content-driven campaign that will support sustainability and resource efficiency professionals on our collective mission to eliminate single-use plastics – has a new home.

In addition to hosting content that supports businesses with their single-use plastics phase-outs, the Mission Possible Plastics Hub will be encouraging sustainability professionals to submit new commitments to tackle plastic pollution on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall.

If your company has an existing plastics commitment, or if you’re planning a new commitment over the coming months, you can showcase it on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall.


(By submitting a pledge, edie readers are agreeing to the commitment, target date and expected benefits being published on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall, along with their name and job title. They are also agreeing to being contacted by a member of the edie editorial team, should any further information about their pledge be required.)

Matt Mace