Inside Kimberly-Clark's plastics packaging strategy
EXCLUSIVE: Kimberly-Clark's global sustainability lead for products and packaging Daniel Locke has outlined how the company is "revamping" its resource management ambitions as consumer pressure for plastic packaging reductions mounts.
In 2016, multinational consumer goods giant Kimberly-Clark (K-C) unveiled its Sustainability 2022 strategy, outlining the environmental and social actions it wanted to take before the company’s 150th anniversary.
As a producer of some of the world’s most recognisable and fast-moving single-use consumer goods brands, including Huggies, Kleenex, Andrex and Kotex, waste is, unsurprisingly, a key cornerstone of the strategy. It includes an overarching pledge to divert 150,000 metric tonnes of waste materials from landfill and recycled or upcycled into higher-value alternatives by 2022.
But the exact composition of this waste was not specified in 2017. Speaking exclusively to edie, K-C’s Locke explained that the “policy and public conversation around plastics and packaging has shifted rapidly” in the two years since Sustainability 2022 was published, pushing the company to “constantly be checking and adjusting to make sure [it] stays current and relevant”.
One of the updates made as a result of these interim checks was signing WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact – an action which commits K-C to eliminating unnecessary single-use packaging through redesign; making all plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable; achieving recycling and composting rates of 70% or more for packaging, and including 30% recycled content across all packaging. All commitments have a 2025 deadline.
Outlining the changes to K-C’s resource management approaches after it signed the Pact, Locke said: “One of the big shifts for us has been taking our work in focusing in on manufacturing waste and saying ‘we’ve proven that we can divert waste in our own sites, how can we build on those learnings and apply them to post-use for products and packaging?’
“Historically, we’ve focused on efficiency, such as material light-weighting. This is still good – any company will want to reduce the volume of materials it is consuming – but we’re transitioning to a phase of really honing in on the design and asking how we can better design for recyclability, degradability or reusability.”
Locke highlighted the fact that K-C has been operating on a zero-waste-to-landfill basis at an operational level since 2017 but is still in the “transitional” phases of applying learnings from its sites to the post-consumer part of its packaging value chain.
This operations-first approach is no doubt partly a product of K-C having a consumer-facing plastic packaging portfolio which mainly consists of containers that are recyclable in the first instance, and a far larger pulp-based packaging portfolio – meaning forestry has, historically, been more of a priority for the company.
Locke explained that while forest management and responsible paper and pulp sourcing “are still foundational and high-priority” for K-C, “the external landscape has really begun to change and the consumer focus has been shifted to post-use and end-of-life”.
While K-C is yet to publish a specific multi-pronged plastics strategy, such as those developed by Unilever and Procter & Gamble, Locke said that its learnings from resource management at a manufacturing level do “come at the issue from all angles” - namely reducing, reusing and recycling.
Closing the recycling loop
On plastics packaging recyclability, which K-C is aiming to boost from 90% to 100% by 2022 in the UK, the company has established a dedicated Plastics Pact team to identify all non-recyclable formats and develop alternatives which are both lightweight and made from either recyclable plastics or other materials.
One of the key switches in this area for the UK market will be replacing the plastic tape on cardboard boxes with an alternative that is recyclable in the cardboard waste stream, preventing plastic contamination.
K-C will also work to scale up its ‘RightCycle’ scheme for business clients, which enables them to recycle disposable hygiene products like rubber gloves, shoe covers and single-use aprons into rigid plastic products such as plant pots. The scheme launched in the US in 2011, where it has enabled the recycling of 80 million gloves to date, with Locke noting that K-C is now being “pulled by customers” to expand the initiative.
Of course, Locke noted, recyclability only works if packaging is actually being segregated and processed correctly by K-C’s business and domestic customers alike.
The company’s work to boost recyclability, both through redesign and by investing in waste management system innovations, is, therefore, being complemented with a programme to make on-pack messaging regarding how to correctly recycle clearer. Such communications will also be re-iterated through traditional advertising formats and social media campaigns, with information published on K-C’s central website for consumers to access at any time.
A refill revolution?
Locke went on to emphasise the fact that recyclability alone cannot create a circular plastics packaging economy – particularly given that only 9% of all plastics ever produced globally have been successfully recycled.
“I think there’s definitely a growing need for refills, because the challenge is now on business to not only ensure their materials are recyclable – which I think is becoming more and more table stakes – but to cut down on the volume of materials used initially,” Locke said.
To that end, K-C recently launched its first refillable product under its Huggies wet wipes portfolio. The format consists of a rigid plastic tub which is refillable and recyclable and a range of refill packs with plastic packaging that is designed for light-weighting and store drop-off recyclability across the US, mainland Europe and the UK.
“It’s an innovative concept that I’d say helps customers feel less guilty, and which we can look to apply in other areas of the business moving forward,” Locke added.
The launch of the refillable Huggies model comes amid a period of similar moves by other consumer goods and food & drink firms, with 24 such companies having recently unveiled their support for TerraCycle's "Loop" platform. Under the model, which is already live in Paris and is due to launch in the UK this autumn, businesses provide product refills while retaining ownership of their reusable packaging.
For Locke, announcements like this prove that refill and reuse are “absolutely becoming more mainstream” at a global level, with consumers “now more open than in the past” to such shopping models. Indeed, a recent Unilever survey found that 85% of UK adults are now keen to buy reusable packaging and products where possible, even if doing so requires them to change behaviours.
“Refill is a big business opportunity for K-C, as well as an opportunity to reduce our resource footprint,” Locke concluded. “Consumers increasingly see these subscriptions and refill models as an added value, which is something any business will be striving to deliver.”
edie's Mission Possible Plastics Hub
edie has launched the Mission Possible Plastics Hub – a brand-new content-driven campaign that will support sustainability and resource efficiency professionals on our collective mission to eliminate single-use plastics.
In addition to hosting content that supports businesses with their single-use plastics phase-outs, the Mission Possible Plastics Hub will be encouraging sustainability professionals to submit new commitments to tackle plastic pollution on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall.
If your company has an existing plastics commitment, or if you’re planning a new commitment over the coming months, you can showcase it on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall.
(By submitting a pledge, edie readers are agreeing to the commitment, target date and expected benefits being published on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall, along with their name and job title. They are also agreeing to being contacted by a member of the edie editorial team, should any further information about their pledge be required.)