I believe sustainability can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. In the context of packaging at Seventh Generation, we use a life-cycle analysis approach to judge sustainability. We look at products from the very beginning to the very end of their lives. If it’s petroleum based, how much energy did it take to extract the oil from the ground? If it’s plant based, what water and natural resources did growing that crop demand? We use this data to make packaging decisions based on environmental impact.
By 2020, we want to produce zero waste by making all Seventh Generation packaging fully recyclable or compostable. We’re also eliminating virgin petroleum plastic (new plastic made from oil) and virgin fibre (virgin wood pulp) from our packs. We envision a world without packaging litter, where no packaging goes to waste, and where materials are made from renewed resources and are themselves renewed.
We prioritise post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic because its greenhouse gas emissions are lower than virgin petroleum-based resins. In some of our bottles, we supplement PCR plastic with a drop-in bio-based plastic made from sugarcane. These bottles can later be recycled and turned into something else.
One of our biggest challenges right now is e-commerce shipping of our packages. Traditionally, packs are created for shipment to bricks and mortar stores but e-commerce has created so many hazards and variables that a pack could go through. We must find the balance between protecting the product and creating additional waste from packaging or damaged products. We are now working to design many of our package components to survive the rigours of e-commerce without needing additional protective packaging.
Right now, post-consumer recycled plastic comes at a cost premium to virgin resins. We can build that price into our cost targets but of course we don’t want to pass it on to consumers, so we look for ways to offset that cost impact, such as making the bottle lighter, or exploring potential savings on the label, closure or product itself. It’s all considered.
I’m currently working on a project to expand Seventh Generation around the world and as we bring the brand to new countries we’re sticking to our sustainability goals and guidelines. I’m working to launch these bottles with high levels of recycled plastic and am designing them to be fully recyclable.
It will be a great day when all of our packaging components are made of zero virgin petroleum or fibres. I’m proud of our team – they’ve done some incredible work in the past ten years and we championed sustainable packaging long before it was popular.
When it comes to my personal purpose, a big push came from a defining experience in a previous role. I took part in a company trash clean-up day and came across a piece of litter that was from some packaging I’d previously worked on. I was always passionate about the outdoors and about sustainability but seeing something I created now create waste in the environment was horrible.
As consumers, we interact with packaging several times a day in everything we buy. But it’s only quite recently that I think people have really started to take notice of what it’s made from and what happens to a pack when they have finished using it.
I’ve been surprised by the lack of knowledge many consumers have about recycling. People genuinely want to do good for the environment and make smart choices but they don’t exactly know how to. I have also been surprised to learn that recycling instructions on most packs are vague or not present all together.
We’ve got a responsibility to help people recycle. Instructions need to be clear or things just get thrown out. That’s why we’ve introduced the ‘how2recycle®’ logo on all our packs. It calls out each component of the packaging and tells you how to properly recycle or dispose of the product.
I’ve been to materials recovery facilities, where recycled items are sorted and prepared for reprocessing, and have seen our own Seventh Generation laundry bottles in the bales. It was awesome to see the circular economy in action and know that our bottle was recycled and can now be reused in a new Seventh Generation bottle.
I’m excited that so many other FMCG businesses are starting to realise the strain that packaging waste puts on the environment, and that it’s on companies to make that change, to push sustainable products, packaging and the circular economy.
Businesses are already starting to make positive changes. Many are stepping up with their sustainability goals and now we need to see them following through – supporting consumers with knowledge and instructions, as well as infrastructure.
A change I’d love to see is consumers looking for greater personal and environmental responsibility, not just in their purchasing decisions but in their actions too. It’s one thing to choose a product that can be recycled. Actually recycling it every time is the next challenge. Every day is an opportunity to create change in the world. One of the best ways I believe is to start small and look at your daily habits.
If I could encourage people to make one change, it would be to say no to plastic drinking straws. Though they are technically made from a recyclable plastic, the reason they so often end up in landfill waste is because they’re small enough to fall through the gaps during sorting at recycling plants. They’re usually not necessary and if we all refuse them, it’s a small change that could really add up.