One multinational is on a mission to get us recycling more—and recycling better.
“We are guided by the question: ‘How can we really make a difference in consumers' lives where it matters the most?’,” says Gian De Belder, Principal Scientist at Procter & Gamble (P&G).
Recycling, which saves more than 700 million tonnes in CO2 emissions every year, is one area in which P&G believes packaging innovation has the power to make that difference. As part of a set of sustainability goals, Ambition 2030, the multinational aims to achieve 100% recyclable or reusable packaging, while halving its use of virgin petroleum plastic in packaging – all by 2030.
That kind of transformation is no easy feat: above all, packaging has to be functional.“Every time we design packaging, we want to use the minimum amount of material necessary,” says De Belder. “But we still need to ensure the package is fit for use and pleasing to consumers.”
If P&G can balance those demands, customers will reward it. New research commissioned by Smurfit Kappa and conducted by Longitude shows the flipside: 45% of UK consumers have rejected a brand based on unsustainable packaging in the past six months.
Smart packaging, intelligent recycling
Many people already make choices based on sustainability, and with pressure to make responsible consumption choices continuing to mount, more will follow suit. But consumers lack information – not only about which packaging to choose, but also about what to do when they have finished with it.
With design innovation, collection, education and separation all central to P&G’s Ambition 2030 agenda, it is working to nudge customers towards recycling more, and more effectively.
Essentially, the goal is to ensure that recycled goods are sorted accurately in order to introduce plastics back into the circular economy at a much higher re-use quality. The HolyGrail initiative – due to debut this year on major P&G brands including Lenor and Fairy – could be crucial. It imprints packages with digital watermarks – a ‘Digimarc’ barcode, invisible to the human eye, which turns packaging into ‘intelligent objects’.
“Consumers will be able to just scan the pack with their mobile phones, and immediately have all the information they need in order to properly recycle the packaging,” says De Belder. “HolyGrail opens up a completely new era of thinking in terms of sorting.”
Informing the consumer in this way moves the recycling narrative from finger-pointing to empowerment, education and action, he explains: “This technology has delivered some positive news for packaging after several years of plastic-bashing.”
Thanks to innovations like these, actions the recycling industry thought were impossible – distinguishing between food and non-food packaging, detecting opaque and difficult-to-recycle packaging, and identifying multilayer packages – are now a reality.
Innovation made collaborative
Beyond recycling education and packaging innovation, another of P&G’s aims is to create value through sustainability. And here, it is cross-value-chain collaboration that holds the key.
P&G wants the next phase of the HolyGrail project to create a ‘mega-consortium’ of the corporations throughout the value chain that support universal tagging and watermarks for better recycling and a more circular economy. HolyGrail 2.0 already has 160 interested parties, and by bringing them together around the table, P&G hopes to scale up its innovation and create critical mass.
It has started well. “The good news is that people believe in this technology,” says De Belder. “We’re seeing a lot of interest from a full-value-chain approach: packaging producers, brand retailers, sorting centres, waste manufacturers, governments, the European Commission – you name it.”
The goal? To acquire government support for this initiative in the form of bonus systems on EPR (extended producer responsibility) – to go towards what De Belder describes as an “incentive for more companies to make the move” to drive their sustainability practices.
“By doing so, we see a future where the implementation of sustainable watermarks will be cost neutral to companies,” he says. “That’s definitely the future.”
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