Big laundry’s big problem
Chief creative officer at eco cleaning company Smol
Nearly all households in the UK buy laundry products. This equates to over 100 million plastic packs per year based on 2021 IRI market data, the majority of which have traditionally been produced with virgin plastics.
Inexpensive, easily made, versatile and durable; when laundry brands were looking for cheap, convenient packaging that protected products, plastic had the answer. The supply chains established to meet this plastic demand have been relied on for decades.
The threat to the environment is still not enough for laundry’s big players to establish more sustainable packaging options. Promises have been made and targets set across the industry, but none of laundry’s top brands are currently aiming to move away from plastic entirely.
The logistics and costs of overhauling almost the entirety of the supply chain, coupled with the fact plastic remains cheap, means that an impactful reduction of plastic has been replaced with conservative pledges and a brush of greenwashing by most.
Main image: Jordan Perata, Kilo
What are the alternatives?
One of the problems with most plastics is the recyclability. Currently, most plastics only get recycled once before degrading to the point of not being able to be used. Plus, most plastic packaging is still not being recycled in the UK, and only 9% of plastic is being recycled worldwide.
The world’s best packaging is a banana skin but, failing that, paper runs a pretty close second. When managed responsibly and sustainably, the forests grown to supply paper mills can even have the added benefit of planting more than they take – and the world could use more trees.
In stark contrast to plastic, paper and card are also more readily recycled, with rates of over 80% in the UK, and it takes 70% less energy to recycle paper than it does to make it new from raw materials.
Moving towards sustainable materials can pose a challenge. Laundry capsules, for instance, need to be sold in child-impeding packaging. The child-lock has traditionally been delivered via injection moulded plastic – a function that’s difficult to replicate in more sustainable alternatives. Difficult but not impossible with some great design thinking.
Ultimately, the supply chain is built to run millions of the same pack, meaning the best option for the big guys is to design a plastic-free pack with a similar shape that can run down existing lines. To see dramatic changes we need dramatic solutions, and a dramatic overhaul of our industry’s approach to packaging.
The industry needs to wake up: Plastic is the enemy and we’re all in this fight together. The general public is wising up to the greenwashing of laundry brands and they want to see deeds not words.
New packaging and ingredients
Finding sustainable alternatives to plastic is the first and biggest step that needs to be made but there’s also an argument for changing the products’ ingredients.
Many laundry detergents contain water or fillers that bulk out the product. Concentrated laundry capsules can be half the weight of most mainstream brands, with the benefit of saving space (and requiring less packaging), and money (by using less product), which means fewer carbon emissions from fewer deliveries on the road.
Sizable shifts need to be made but such changes do good not only for customers but also for the planet. Consumers are crying out for this change with 93% of UK adults wanting companies to do more to protect the environment. Ultimately, the importance of sustainable alternatives for the 270 washes the average household in the UK gets through each year is imperative and the collective power of the industry is fundamental.