Earlier this month, Procter & Gamble and Paboco announced a commercial trial for an innovation that it describes as its first step towards a fully recyclable paper-based bottle. We spoke with Jerry Porter, Senior Vice President of R&D for Global Fabric & Home Care Sector at P&G, to get his thoughts on recyclability, the criticisms that have been leveled at P&G following the announcement, and the steps that must be taken in order to launch a fully recyclable paper-based bottle at scale.
In your view, what are the inherent advantages of this innovation over traditional formats like glass or PET? What is the thinking behind P&G’s desire to explore alternative formats like this one?
P&G FC is committed to decarbonize laundry at every stage. The Carbon Footprint of the paper bottle at scale will be better than glass and current plastics. The bottle is composed of paper fibers from FSC-certified sources – ensuring it’s from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.
It only takes one tree to make 10,000 paper bottles. For every tree harvested two to three new trees are planted and allowed to grow to an optimal size. For future generations of the bottle, we will use minimal barriers and utilize that paper is (and will continue to be) the most recycled material.
At P&G, we innovate to develop irresistible and sustainable alternatives to delight our consumers while we progress in our decarbonization commitments. Our ambition for a fully recyclable high-quality FSC-certified paper bottle for our products will deliver on that.
To prevent seepage, and to preserve the performance, safety, and fresh scent of the Lenor Fabric Conditioner inside, this first-generation bottle has an inner layer and a neck of 100% recycled PET plastic.
Using recycled plastic and paper shell in this trial is the first step in understanding how to merge the two materials to overcome the challenge of waterproofing, so we can work towards a fully recyclable solution. This reduces the plastic used in the Lenor Fabric Conditioner bottles by 30%.
The challenge is that paper and liquid dramatically affect each other’s integrity. To our knowledge, nobody has found a way to produce a 100% paper-based bottle that still properly holds liquids. This type of progress is ambitious, but we have been and will continue to co-develop and drive meaningful progress with Paboco.
In its current state, can the bottles be recycled? Will recyclers be able to separate the layers, or will they be incinerated?
Until the next generation of the bottle is widely and easily recyclable in the paper stream, we are collaborating with our retail partner – Albert Heijn in The Netherlands – to trial a takeback scheme, working to prevent waste disposal issues. We are also working with a Paper Recycling partner to then use those bottles to learn about the impact on the current paper stream.
Each learning journey needs a starting point, and several iterations may be needed to achieve success. This is not a final product but a great first milestone in our paper-bottle journey and the learnings we expect to gather from the pilot will bring us another step closer to our vision: a fully recyclable botte in the paper-waste stream.
What are your plans for improving the recyclability of the innovation if/when it is launched at commercial scale?
P&G Fabric & Home Care has clear and public goals to halve the use of petroleum-based plastics by 2030 and reduce the overall use of plastics by 30% by 2025 in Europe. This pilot is a crucial step towards those.
Following our trial period, we’ll have gained invaluable insight into the functionality of a non-plastic bottle for liquid laundry products, that inform future packaging solutions at scale. We will continue considering our Fabric & Home Care brands to scale up the most viable solutions, and work to produce a bottle with a fully recyclable structure, that has a reduced carbon footprint, and is compatible with the at-home paper-waste recycling stream.
We are also working on compacting our products, removing everything that’s not essential, and applying biomimicry for a superior pack design with minimal material required.
Solving the biggest sustainability challenges – like packaging waste – requires collaboration. This is why we are continuing to drive investment and innovation in our R&D, but also furthering our partnerships with like-minded organizations, like Paboco, that enable people, the planet, and our business to thrive.
Have any independent LCAs been undertaken to assess the sustainability performance of the bottle? How much CO2 is created during the manufacturing process?
An independent LCA study is conducted by Pré consultants in close collaboration with Paboco. The study is currently in process of being critically reviewed by a panel of 3 independent experts. The sourcing of the biobased raw materials as well as the processing of the bottle are relevant contributors to the total packaging footprint.
P&G is taking the learnings on carbon releases from every life cycle stage with the aim fof continuous improvement and enabling holistic comparisons with other packaging forms over the full life cycle.
It’s worth remembering that this trial bottle is being compared to an industrialized manufacturing process that has been optimized over decades. Once Paboco’s process is scaled up, we will be able to assess if the paper bottle, which is derived from bio-based renewable materials, could have a comparable or better carbon footprint as compared to conventional packaging and how the relevant lifecycle impacts can be improved.
How would you respond to criticism from commentators who suggest that the product is simply a plastic bottle wrapped in paper?
At P&G we aim for circularity and are committed to using less and better plastics for our packaging. It’s important to remember that this involves piloting alternatives to plastics for our liquid bottles, such as this Paboco Gen1 bottle, and that this is just one of the many packaging innovations that we are trialing and launching around the world. This new innovation alone reduces the plastic used in the Lenor Fabric Conditioner bottles by 30%.
We don’t have all the answers today, but we will test and learn together. We are very clear on our goal: to create the world’s first recyclable bottle in paper waste streams. This pilot in the Netherlands is a crucial step forward toward that ambition and we will continue to work with our partners across the ecosystem to achieve that.
On the grand scheme of things, we see lots of announcements for pilot projects like this, but fewer announcements about these pilots reaching commercial scale. What are the key barriers standing in the way of a commercial launch for this bottle? Is there a roadmap in place?
Innovations like this are very ambitious and take time and collaboration across the industry to ensure that they are robust and scalable. We decided to take a step approach, focusing on solving every key innovation challenge, at every step.
Forming a paper bottle was the first challenge; adding a paper neck and a coating barrier to further reduce the plastic used, will be the second step. Once these are proven in market, we believe the packaging will be ready to scale.