How Ecover came to make use of plastic waste from the sea to create bottles provides valuable lessons and ideas to all product packaging leaders.
A world-first in packaging, a new form of recyclable plastic that incorporates sea plastic, post-consumer recyclables and plant-based plastic, came about when Tom Domen, Long Term Innovation Manager at Ecover, was looking for a packaging solution that could make a long term positive contribution to the environment.
“My goal was not to simply create packaging that used less material or that had a slightly less negative impact on the environment. We wanted a solution that was potentially able to be restorative and take something bad out of the environment,” said Domen, a speaker at the marcus evans EuroPack Summit 2014, taking place in Cascais, Portugal, 8 - 9 September. With water quality a big concern globally, Ecover decided to make plastic floating in the ocean, “part of the solution rather than the problem”.
As for the financial feasibility of using this material, Domen explained that although it costs more today, scaling up will make it more affordable in the future. “We are in the first trial phase, trying to get more fishermen in the network. We do not have a lot of material coming in, and what we do get is from different places. They must all be brought together and transported to recyclers, who need to do a special run just for us. All these processes in the supply chain are on a small scale, but we hope that scaling up will make it more feasible.” New subsidies for fishermen in Europe will help bring down some of the costs, but getting more material coming in and working more efficiently with fishermen and recyclers are all part of Domen’s plan.
While the core proposition of the Ecover brand has a strong focus on sustainability, it does not mean that other companies cannot find a value in ocean waste. “As a company, we still need to make a profit and we can recover the additional costs through the marketing benefits it will bring about. That is how other organisations can realise value, even if they are not as focused on sustainability as we are. They can consider the investment into the material as a marketing investment, to tell a marketing story to consumers, to show they are serious about their corporate social responsibilities.”
Getting the plastic out of the ocean efficiently has been one of Ecover’s biggest challenges so far. “Fishermen did not create this waste problem, so convincing them to work with us has been difficult. We had to do a lot of engagement with the community to explain what we are all about,” Domen noted.
“Companies can engage the community in multiple ways, by organising beach clean-ups and looking for other ways to get the plastic to the recycler. Any efficiency that can be gained would be good.” Another issue is the quality of the plastic recovered, and deterioration cause by the sun, salt and water. There must be a strict selection process in place in order to avoid putting low quality plastic into the recycling chain.
The message from Domen is clear: there are many ways of making packaging more sustainable. “You can reduce the amount of plastic used, put more recycled content, look for different materials, connect more efficiently with the recycling people, and so on. It is a lot of hard work to bring that message to consumers. That is why I suggest companies start with one pioneering project, to show consumers they are serious about it. They can launch a limited edition bottle that allows them to tell a packaging story and to engage their consumers on the complex matter of sustainable packaging.”