At the moment, there are 165 million tons of plastic in our oceans. If something doesn’t change, there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050. The use of plastics has skyrocketed in the past 50 years, and this trend is likely to continue because it is in nearly all the products we consume. If the strong growth for plastics doesn’t subside, the plastics sector will account for 20 percent of total global oil consumption. Sadly, sea life and birds are dying from eating or becoming tangled in this debris.

It is time to rethink the future of plastics, and this is just what TerraCycle, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and SUEZ are doing in an industry-first collaboration. The project between the recycling solutions company, multinational consumer goods corporation, and global leader in the water and waste segment has led to the first shampoo bottle made with 25 percent recycled beach plastic. This limited-edition Head & Shoulders bottle was released last summer in France and contains plastics collected by thousands of volunteers.

The first shampoo bottle made with beach plastic. Photo: P&G

“The Head & Shoulders recyclable shampoo bottle made with beach plastic is a world’s first in the hair care category. Increasing the use of recycled plastic in the packaging of our flagship brands … makes it easier for consumers to choose more sustainable products, without any trade-offs,” said Virginie Helias, vice president of global sustainability, P&G, in a statement. “So while we’re proud of what we’ve done and what we’re doing, we know there is much more work ahead.”

Creating a New Plastics Economy

Producing a bottle from beach plastic certainly has its challenges. UV exposure degrades plastic, making it difficult to recycle. Using beach plastics requires creating a new supply chain from collected materials across large areas and necessitates many hands to get the work done. It will be difficult to significantly scale up the production of items made with recycled beach plastic due to these restrictions.

TerraCycle is a recycling company that specializes in hard-to-recycle waste, and it has relationships with many volunteer groups to source the materials for this new shampoo bottle. It is collaborating with hundreds of organizations to recycle rigid beach plastic into new products by sorting, cleaning and then melting it into hard plastic that will be remolded into new items.

Challenges with Plastic Recycling

Plastics are so difficult to recycle that a mere 14 percent of plastic packaging actually gets recycled. There are many types of plastic made from numerous kinds of resins, causing it to be complicated to automate the sorting process. Some plastic recycling centers actually manually sort plastic materials to avoid contamination, making the process expensive and time-consuming. Some plastics are also too small or are contaminated, thus they are discarded. As a result, a lot of plastic containers aren’t ultimately recycled.

Design Constraints with Recycled Plastic

Hair care product packaging contains high-performance polymers that need to be highly pliable. It isn’t possible to produce a functional shampoo bottle from 100 percent post-consumer recycled content with today’s technology because the bottle would crack when squeezed. In addition, it is difficult to create bright white bottles, like the typical Head & Shoulders shampoo bottle.

Corporations Further the New Plastics Economy

Corporate commitments to post-consumer recycled plastics are very important to further progress and create demand for recycled plastics. It requires companies to look upstream in creating solutions while still meeting consumer demand.

P&G also announced it would produce half a billion bottles for hair care products in Europe with up to 25 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. Such actions help create a more consistent demand for recycled plastics, adding a financial incentive for recyclers to produce these materials.

This announcement shows a commitment to post-consumer recycled plastics in general, in addition to beach plastic.

“Creating the world’s first recyclable shampoo bottle with beach plastics is a start of an important journey,” said Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, in a statement. “With the circular economy gaining more traction, we hope that other global brands will work with green suppliers and use their influence to drive change for the benefit of the environment.”

P&G, Suez and TerraCycle are among the 40 plastics-dependent organizations — including chemical manufacturers, consumer goods producers, and recyclers — to support the New Plastics Economy (NPEC). Led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum, this initiative is designed to dramatically increase plastics recycling in the next three years through a multi-stakeholder approach.

“P&G believes transformational change can be achieved by combining the perspectives of all stakeholders, including industry, governments and consumers,” Helias said in a statement. “We are actively engaged in several multi-stakeholder collaborations that seek to improve recycling uptake, quality and economics. The New Plastics Economy initiative’s collaborative way of working is aligned with ours and represents a powerful opportunity to drive positive change in the plastics system.”

Feature image courtesy of P&G

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.