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Message in a Bottle: Procter & Gamble’s Push to Recycle Ocean Plastic

Consumer products giant P&G is tackling marine pollution by creating bottles made from beach plastic and developing new technologies to reduce waste. P&G’s Virginie Helias talks about the importance of collaboration to solve the ocean plastic crisis.

Written by Lara Setrakian, Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Procter & Gamble’s Fairy liquid soap bottle is made with recycled plastic trash collected from beaches.Procter & Gamble

In recent years, the fight against ocean plastic pollution has gone from a preoccupation of marine scientists to a movement embraced by everyone from schoolchildren to Queen Elizabeth II, galvanized by images of trash-strewn seas and sea turtles choking on plastic straws and other consumer castaways. Cities such as Seattle have moved to prohibit restaurants from offering single-use plastic straws and other nonrecyclable items, a policy increasingly adopted around the world.

Big corporations clearly are getting the message. In December, Dell, General Motors and other companies formed the NextWave consortium with nonprofit Lonely Whale to build a supply chain to intercept ocean-bound plastic trash and turn it into everything from packaging and furniture to bicycle parts.

Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, along with Unilever, PepsiCo and other Fortune 500 corporations, are appearing at high-profile ocean conferences to make commitments to reduce their plastic use and launch initiatives to recycle marine plastic debris.

At last year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, P&G unveiled a new bottle for its Head & Shoulders shampoo comprising up to 25 percent plastic collected from beaches. And at the Our Ocean conference in Malta in October, the company introduced a Fairy washing-up liquid soap bottle made with 10 percent beach plastic and 90 percent other recycled plastic.

At this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in January, News Deeply’s executive editor and chief executive Lara Setrakian met with Virginie Helias, P&G’s vice president for global sustainability, to talk about the company’s ocean plastic efforts, new technologies to reduce waste and the importance of collaboration in tackling the marine pollution crisis.

Oceans Deeply: Why are consumers and P&G focused on the ocean plastic issue?

Virginie Helias: When you think about it, it’s kind of logical, because when you go grocery shopping, the first thing that happens is you have a full bin of unnecessary packaging that you throw away. So it’s the most tangible for people, that packaging is there and it doesn’t go away, and also, they are paying for something that they don’t use.

If we look at P&G products and where our carbon footprint is, 70 percent is in the usage of our product, which is basically the warm water that people need to wash their clothes and shave and brush their teeth. So packaging is a small part of this, but for our consumers, it’s the most important part.

We absolutely need to recognize that. One, it is a planetary issue that gets into the ocean and in the food chain and then ultimately to our plates. So it really is an important issue.

Oceans Deeply: What are the concrete signs to you that consumers really care about the plastics issue and plastics in the ocean?

Helias: The success of our initiative with Head & Shoulders is a very concrete sign. Frankly, it was an experiment. We had no idea whether people would be interested or not. Changing for us the iconic color of the Head & Shoulders bottle, which is blue and white, into gray, was a huge deal internally, and it was also a bit of a bet. It turned out to be in the top 10 sales in France where we piloted it. Amazing, amazing appeal from the retailers, and helping us in getting people in-store because they need a little bit of education around what this is about. Also, the fact that we were allowing people to participate in the beach collection. There was a beach cleanup where you can go and participate. We had 1,000 volunteers to collect the plastic from the French beaches.

Virginie Helias, P&G’s vice president for global sustainability, and Terracycle chief executive Tom Szaky holding a Head & Shoulders bottle made from recycled beach plastic. (Twitter)

It shows that there is international appeal, and we are now taking this initiative to more brands, more countries all around the world. There is clearly interest. Why? Because the ocean captures, frankly, the imagination of people. Usually, sustainability’s like so daunting, like, “What can I do?” But here, we tell them, “Visually, you are not going to clean the ocean, but just by recycling your Head & Shoulders bottle, this is how you can help and be part of the circular economy.” This is very rewarding for people. We have tangible signs there is interest and we want to take it to the next level now.

Oceans Deeply: Where does it go next? You talked about other countries.

Helias: We were in Malta at the Our Ocean conference when we announced that we are doing this for the Fairy brand. It’s totally iconic, stays on your kitchen counter, so every day you can see it and it says, “Ocean plastic,” and you are reminded of the issue of ocean plastic pollution. But more importantly, the role you can personally play by just going and recycling your bottle. We do Fairy with Tesco in the U.K. We’re launching this spring in Israel. We are launching in Germany.

We are often told, “Well, but it’s a drop in the ocean,” no pun intended. It’s true. It’s “storied plastic,” we call it. It’s to raise awareness about the issue, but in terms of addressing the problem at scale, we do many more things that we don’t necessarily advertise. When we announced Head & Shoulders beach plastic, it was actually a double announcement. We said, “We are doing the beach plastic, but at the same time, we commit that by the end of this year, 90 percent of all the shampoos we sell in Europe will have up to 25 percent post-consumer recycled plastic.” We’ve committed to double the amount of recycled plastic by 2020.

Oceans Deeply: Do you feel the industry is following your lead on this?

Helias: Yes, we’ve heard of many other initiatives on beach plastic and, obviously, we’ve heard of all the commitment on the recyclability, which is part of the same thing. It’s clearly a focus, and it’s a race to the top, which is quite fun to watch.

Polypropylene is a broadly used resin, but the applications for recycling polypropylenes are very limited because it kind of stinks, so there is odor, the color is kind of gray, there are a lot of contaminants. One of our scientists developed this amazing innovation that turns recycled polypropylene, which is usually gray-black and doesn’t have a good odor, to a virgin-like state, and then it can reenter the manufacturing process and be recycled again like a virgin material.

Oceans Deeply: Is this, for you, a generational issue in terms of consumer attitudes? Are you seeing signs that your next generation of consumers at P&G cares more about this?

Helias: Definitely. We have 95,000 employees. Each time I say, “OK, we are going to do this project,” I don’t need to ask for resources. I have droves of millennials coming to me saying, “I want to work on a project like this.” Actually, now if they’re joining the company it’s already because they know that the company’s doing things like that. It’s become such an important cause. What’s very interesting is my generation has kids who are in this generation, right? A number of senior leaders come to me saying, “Actually, can you talk to my daughter? She’s doing an MBA on sustainability.” They are pushed and that’s great, because they can’t look them in the eyes without doing something.

Oceans Deeply: As you scale up efforts, what do you think is going to be the biggest stumbling block or the hardest challenge to actually impacting this issue?

Helias: The challenge is that it is all about collaboration. We are in this task force, which is called Holy Grail, well named, which is about using tracer technology to better sort plastic. So that the end value is higher because it’s better sorted. Those are things we’ve never done before. We need to build the capability there, and we need to just have this new mindset of it’s a shared obligation. It’s kind of a new theme. It’s not just competition and innovation. We need all that. We need, clearly, innovation, but we need to participate in these societal collaboration efforts.

Oceans Deeply: Anything else you want people to understand about how you see this issue or where you want it to go next?

Helias: I’d like just to mention that when people think about recyclability, they immediately think about packaging, but there are actually even more important issues that are more visible, like diapers. We make diapers. People don’t think immediately of diapers as plastic. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but we’ve qualified a technology to recycle diapers, and we are super proud of this. It’s an operation in Italy. We have announced we are launching in Amsterdam. We have a few other cities lined up, and this is huge because as the rates of recycling plastic increase, what’s left? A big part of it is diapers.

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