Inside Henkel's plastics packaging strategy
EXCLUSIVE: Henkel's international director of packaging technology Thorsten Leopold has outlined how and why the company developed its three-pronged plastics strategy, and how the framework's targets have helped the multinational take plastic action "beyond its own four walls".
Launched in September 2018, when the Blue Planet effect was undeniably dominating the sustainability conversation, Henkel’s plastics strategy covers three core pillars: using materials from sustainable sources, using smart design and closing the loop.
Speaking exclusively to edie, Henkel’s Leopold explained the importance of a company of Henkel’s size treating all pillars with “equal importance” and acting across their scope “simultaneously” in order to drive holistic and impactful change. The company’s 799,000-metric-tonne packaging portfolio in 2018 was notably 51% plastic.
“From our point of view, [the pillars] are the most critical and important approaches that will bring about a circular economy,” Leopold said. “Only when packaging is designed with the least material possible; is recyclable or reusable; is made of recycled content, and is designed with context in mind will we reach a solution we could call fully sustainable.”
Under the first pillar sits Henkel’s work to use less material in the first instance, and to source plastics from renewable (non-fossil-fuel-based) or recovered sources. Its target on the latter is to reach 35% recycled content across all plastic packaging on consumer goods sold in Europe by 2025 – up from around 2.2% in 2017 and 10% in 2019.
Given that some businesses are setting 100% or global targets, edie asked Leopold how the recycled content target was reached. He explained that, after research into the availability and quality of recycled feedstocks across global markets, the target was deemed “ambitious yet feasible”.
Global demand for recycled plastic content has boomed over the past three years, with hundreds of the world’s biggest consumer goods brands having pledged to increase their sourcing of the material through agreements like WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy commitment. But its availability varies on a global basis, due to differing national policies which have borne differing waste collection systems and infrastructure availability. Moreover, with demand outstripping supply, recycled plastic prices are, in some cases, higher than those for virgin materials.
Of the recycled plastics sourced by Henkel in 2018, Leopold elaborates, 99% originated from domestic sources.
Henkel’s work to use less material in the first instance technically sits under the first pillar but touches the second – smart design – as well. The business, Leopold explained, uses a “reduce, replace, rethink” hierarchy when innovating at the design stage.
Henkel does not have a numerical target for reducing packaging by weight (aside from reaching zero materials of “potential concern”, a category which encompasses PVC) but has already lightweighted packaging used across several of its most popular consumer products and is using digital technologies to drive material efficiencies at the manufacturing level and beyond.
But of course, the most impactful way to reduce single-use packaging is to remove it altogether. Henkel has notably set a 2025 target for all of its plastic packaging to be 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable and, with other brands across the health and beauty, cleaning and homecare sectors – including the likes of Unilever, The Body Shop and Ecover – investing in refillables, Leopold insisted that reusable formats are “not an afterthought” in meeting this aim. This is despite the fact that the 80% of Henkel’s packaging which currently meets its 2025 requirements falls into the “recyclable” category.
“Reusability is clearly in our focus - some of our products already have refills, which come in flexible packs that, by weight, use up to 90% less plastic than the primary packaging,” Leopold explained.
“This is an area where we are always testing…We clearly see a future for this kind of business model.”
To that end, Henkel recently invested in Trumans – an American startup utilising refillable bottles and concentrated products in the cleaning sector. The business is also working with retailers to develop an in-store refill station model for some of its most popular liquid products, Leopold revealed.
Away from reuse, smart design innovations piloted by Henkel include plastic that maintains a black hue without the carbon pigment that makes it hard-to-recycle and software which enables users to scan any plastic packaging and receive an overview of its recyclability.
Collaboration to close the loop
The latter of these innovations, Leopold explained, was designed to combat the fact that there is “no clear, universal definition of ‘recyclable’” – due to variation in factors such as infrastructure availability between nations, states or even towns – and made open source because “not every business will have the capacity or knowledge” to assess recyclability alone.
The desire to help drive plastics progress beyond Henkel’s own operations is evident not only through the software project, but the company’s participation in collaborative initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and Germany’s Rezyklat-Forum.
For Leopold, the biggest benefit of taking part in such initiatives is better engagement with policymakers.
“While we are a large company, being part of industry and cross-industry collaborations means having an even larger voice,” he said, noting that collaborative initiatives help governments receive more “concise” information on supporting business’s sustainability ambitions.
“What will help the whole industry is having a harmonised set of definitions, guidelines and waste collections and recycling systems. Of course, this won’t happen across the globe overnight… but differing systems make it harder for an international company like us to design packaging which is context-appropriate and our role [in changing that context] cannot be ignored”.
A further benefit of participating in collaborative initiatives is participating “pre-competitive” discussions which result in the “alignment” of investment in infrastructure and innovations, according to Leopold. Success in these discussions can lower the risk of stranded assets, minimize unintended consequences and scale up impact, he said.
An example of this kind of collaboration is around chemically recycled plastics. Henkel is supporting BASF and its partners, and, separately, startup Separatec, to bring chemical recycling for plastic to industry-scale in Europe, in a bid to address materials which are not currently mechanically recyclable to high-quality levels. These include flexible plastics and multi-layer packaging.
Summarising, Leopold said that his team, as well as Henkel’s dedicated sustainability team and its wider network of 50,000+ staff to have completed ‘sustainability ambassador’ training, are aware that there is “no silver bullet” for the plastics challenge. He hopes, therefore, that its strategy balances “tried-and-tested” courses of action such as collaboration and product redesign, with the innovative products and systems that will also “play an important role” in reaching both internal targets and operating within planetary boundaries.
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