Must a bottle be made of plastic? This fall, Seventh Generation began a new path: Its Natural 4X Laundry Detergent is shipping in recycled (and recyclable) bottles made of cardboard, manufactured by Ecologic Brands. To see what’s saved, follow the life cycles of both containers.
Municipal Recycling Facility
Curbside recyclables go here. A plastic called HDPE #2 is trucked to one of seven major HDPE #2 recyclers; cardboard goes straight to the new-bottle manufacturer.
The HDPE #2 goes through six steps, including extensive washing, which uses 1 gallon of water per 37.2 bottles. The output: plastic pellets and flakes, raw material for bottles.
Blow Molding Facility
Those pellets and flakes are turned into bottles here. (Seventh Generation's plastic bottles are at least 80% recycled plastic.) Then they're shipped to a filler facility.
Ecologic Brands Facility
Cardboard is recycled and molded into bottles in the same facility, saving transit costs. One gallon of water is used for every 76 bottles made—a 51% reduction from plastic.
Only 25,000 empty plastic bottles can fit into a truck (meaning the truck is mostly shipping air). Cardboard bottles' shells are halved and stacked, so 161,000 fit per truck.
Bottles are filled with detergent. A thin plastic pouch inside the cardboard bottle holds the liquid. (Plastic resin makes three times more pouches than it would rigid bottles.)
Nothing different here: The full bottles are prepped for delivery and then transported to stores via trucks.
Bottles are sold. The major change: Stores can take the boxes that cardboard bottles arrived in and send them back to Ecologic Brands to make more bottles.
Most plastic goes to the dump, where a cubic meter holds either 520 empty 1-liter plastic jugs or 40,000 pouches. Cardboard fares better: 81% is recycled in the U.S.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.