When it comes to recycling plastic, grey is the new green. It’s what you get when you mix up and recycle different colours of plastics and RB is the first fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company worldwide to use it, undyed, in its packaging at scale – for Finish Quantum Ultimate.
The new Finish tubs are launching globally this summer, have a 30 per cent recycled polypropylene (rPP) content and are proudly grey. RB hasn’t tried to add masking pigments or additives (masterbatches) or to make it a more palatable black. Instead, it’s promoting the colour as one of its credentials.
“We know that consumers increasingly embrace brands that do the right thing when it comes to the environment. It’s definitely a mega trend,” says Dominik Reichenmiller, global brand marketing manager for Finish. “We believe they’re ready to accept colours that they might not have before.”
The tubs are the latest step RB has taken towards fulfilling its pledge to make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable and for it to contain at least 25 per cent recycled content by 2025.
In January we launched products in recyclable black plastic. This is a step change because in the past black plastic couldn’t be recycled due to its carbon content. The black plastic we developed with our suppliers uses non-carbon resin, solving the problem, and since our launch other companies have followed suit.
However, our non-carbon black didn’t overcome another problem – that dark and strong colours are not yet widely accepted by the recycling industry in certain areas of the world, because the packaging industry – its clients – prefers light or clear plastic, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). So we wanted to do more.
The move towards a circular economy
“Recycled polypropylene has the potential to be really useful but, until now, few companies embraced it,” says Krzysztof Krajewski, head of packaging innovation for Finish and Vanish. “First-use polypropylene is very common, for example as yoghurt pots, drinks-bottle caps, disposable cups, shampoo and ketchup bottles, so there’s lots of it about. But when you collect it and recycle it all the colours mix together, and it becomes this grey resin. It can smell a bit, too.”
The colour and smell help explain why, to date, rPP has been the unloved post-consumer recycled (PCR) resin, the ugly duckling of the packaging world, in spite of its abundance. And collection is also a problem. The PP items themselves, many being small bottle caps and closures or flexible films, tend to leak out of the recycling system.
The infrastructure for PET recycling, on the other hand, is well established. PET, along with polyethylene, is eagerly sorted, with clear and light-coloured waste recycled into FMCG packaging that’s so light in colour it mimics virgin plastic. But the majority of plastic is disregarded by FMCG companies because, recycled, it is grey and undesirable. This means the sector needs a constant supply of new plastic to feed its packaging habit, ruling out a closed-loop – or even a near-closed loop – manufacturing process. Until now.
“We’re one of the first buyers [of rPP] to maintain the previous-life value of the plastic,” explains Reichenmiller. “We’re taking what often becomes trash and upcycling it. We’re helping to create a circular economy.”
Changing public perception
Krajewski acknowledges the support from recycler Veolia, who developed tailored rPP to the required material grade that meets several strict technical criteria. After successful trials and material fine tuning from Veolia - RB is launching the new tubs with a 30 per cent recycled content. He hopes that the tubs will ultimately have a much higher rPP content but acknowledges that there’s work to do.“Getting to 30 per cent is a real achievement,” he says. “It’s far harder than making something from 100 per cent rPET. We had to address the smell and visual imperfections and ensure that the Finish Quantum Ultimate formulation is compatible with the packaging materials we want to use. But also, the recycling industry isn’t geared up to collect and process polypropylene. There has been little demand to date, so sourcing rPP at volume is hard.”
"We have an end-to-end recycled plastic expertise in Veolia which has streamlined the obstacles of feedstock sourcing, processing and sustainable supply." says Johann Bonnet, Vice President Pharma & Cosmetics from Veolia"
But the colour of rPP has also put off manufacturers concerned it might not be acceptable to consumers. Krajewski and Reichenmiller both believe this barrier is about to be broken down by their new tub.
“We’ve done enough consumer validation to believe they won’t say no to this tub,” says Reichenmiller, adding: “I think it’s really important that we’re making something that’s not pretending to be something else – this grey tub is clearly recycled. It’s not new, shiny virgin plastic. Yes, that’s a new message for consumers, but I think they’re ready.”
The fact the tub is also recyclable means RB is really starting to close the loop. As Krajewski says: “This new tub with all its attributes is exciting and important for anyone really serious about sustainability – which we are at RB.”