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The shockingly simple way to make packaging more sustainable

Your home cleaning products have a major carbon footprint. Several startups want to popularize a clever solution: remove the water.

The shockingly simple way to make packaging more sustainable
[Photo: Blueland]

If you quickly scan through the products under your sink–counter spray, window cleaner, dish soap–they all have one thing in common: Water is their main ingredient. Until now, few consumers thought this was a problem. But as a growing number of people become increasingly aware of both climate change and plastic pollution, the outsize environmental impact of everyday products is becoming hard to ignore.

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“We’re basically shipping water around the country,” says Heather Kauffman, cofounder and COO of Full Circle, who keeps an eye on the home cleaning products industry since her company creates complementary products, like dish brushes and sponges. “Water is something we all have readily available at home. If you think about the carbon emissions required to ship bottles largely filled with water from the manufacturer to the retailer and then to the consumer’s home, it really adds up.”

Then there’s the question of plastic packaging. A new study in the scientific journal Nature found that at the current pace of production, the global plastics industry will contribute to 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. According to Euromonitor, the home care industry generated 29.5 billion plastic containers in 2015, while the personal care industry generated 60 billion units. That translates into 8.9 million tons of plastic generated by both industries, and only a small percentage of that was recycled. The vast majority ended up in a landfill, or worse, in the ocean, where it could be consumed by sea animals and end up in our food. “While the impacts of plastic’s life cycle on climate are important, its impacts on the health of marine life, and human health, are equally important,” says Jaqueline Savitz, chief policy officer of Oceana, an organization committed to saving the oceans.

All of this research shows that we need to take drastic measures to curb our plastic consumption–and this includes the products that fill our homes. “We can’t recycle our way out of this problem,” says Sanders Defruyt, the lead for the new plastics economy at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is focused on making the economy more circular. “We need to totally rethink our products to focus on reusable packaging.”

One shockingly simple way to tackle all of these issues? Remove the water. And several companies have found a way to do just that, spurring a small but growing design revolution in the consumer packaged goods industry.

The Tablet Revolution

Today, a new direct-to-consumer e-commerce brand called Blueland launches with a set of cleaning products that come in the form of small tablets, which the customer mixes with water at home. It joins a smattering of other brands replacing liquid products with tablets, including Dazz and Bottle Bright, which makes tablet cleaning sprays.

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Blueland is debuting with a $29 starter kit that comes with three acrylic spray bottles that are designed to last forever, along with three tablets that you mix with water to create multi-surface, bathroom, and window cleaners. When you need a refill, you simply order new tablets, which cost $2 a pop. Over the next few months, the startup will release other sustainable cleaning and personal care products.

“A lot of people see sustainable products on the market and automatically assume they are going to be more work, more expensive, and a lot less effective,” says Sarah Paiji, Blueland’s founder, who previously worked at McKinsey and e-commerce startups like Rockets of Awesome and M.Gemi. “Our goal is to dispel all of these ideas by designing products that are actually easier to use, cheaper, and more efficacious. When you put a new tablet in the bottle, you don’t even need to shake it, since it dissolves on its own.”

Today, even eco-friendly brands still use disposable plastic containers and create products in fluid form. For instance, Seventh Generation makes concentrated liquid laundry detergents, which means your bottle will last longer, and Grove sells refills for dish soap in plastic bags that use 60% less plastic than a bottle of the same size. But tablets are plastic free and radically lighter, meaning a significant savings in shipping emissions.

“It’s a little strange that tablets are not more widespread because we’re comfortable using tablets in our dishwashers and washing machines,” says Kauffman. “It’s not really such a big leap to using it in other cleaning products.”

[Photo: Dazz]

The Challenge Of Tabletizing

It might seem like it would be easy to compress a liquid into a small tablet that would dissolve in water, but it’s not. Paiji has spent the last two years on continuous R&D to create Blueland’s tablets.

The first step was developing the formula. Blueland has a lab in Montana where scientists have been working to ensure the tabletized version of the cleaning product is just as effective as the liquid version. This is no small feat. Many ingredients in cleaning products do not come in solid form. Take fragrances: Both essential oils and synthetic fragrances mostly come in liquid form, so it was hard to compress them. In the end, the lab found a way to encapsulate the fragrance in silica.  “When it’s exposed to water, it blossoms, and releases the fragrance,” explains Paiji.

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Then there was the issue of contaminants. Paiji believed it was important for consumers to be able to use tap water, rather than filtered or bottled water, to make the process as easy as possible. But tap water quality varies across the country, and contamination may also happen when the customer adds water to the bottle. It was therefore crucial for the tablet formula to have a preservative in it that would eliminate any bacterial growth. “As you can imagine, if there’s bacteria in the water and it sits in a bottle for two years, things will grow,” she says. “We wanted to have a 100% foolproof method in place, so we had to develop a unique preservative method.” In the end, Paiji and her team believe they nailed the formula, which currently has 12 patents pending. In several studies led by the EPA, the Blueland sprays outperformed Windex and Method, clearing out more dirt and streaks with each wipe than these competitors.

But then there was the question of manufacturing the tablets. Since this is a relatively new approach to cleaning products, Paiji scoured the market for a supplier, visiting 50 manufacturers that tabletize products, ranging from laundry detergents to medication, before finding the right fit. “We had to get creative,” she says. “We even visited a candy factory.”

Finally, Paiji had to work on creating the bottle that would come in the starter pack, another major challenge. After doing a lot of consumer research, Paiji discovered that many customers–particularly moms–did not want a glass bottle because it was breakable. Aluminum was also out because many consumers wanted to actually see the tablet fizzing in the bottle and see the final liquid. Paiji finally settled on acrylic, a clear plastic that is fully recyclable. They created the first bottle certified platinum by Cradle to Cradle, which tracks the reusability of products, as well as their carbon and water footprints.  “We needed these bottles to be infinitely reusable,” she says. “But we also wanted to drive mass adoption, because that is how we can truly maximize sustainability.”

[Photo: Blueland]

“We need to change people’s minds”

Blueland is not alone in taking on the challenge of tabletizing. Other small startups–like Dazz and Bright Home–are working on similar tablets for cleaning sprays, and By Humankind just released mouthwash tablets to replace the traditional bottled version; companies like Bite also offer tablet toothpaste.

But what will it take for tablets to be more widely adopted within cleaning and personal care industries? “We’re seeing a lot of small innovators, but this is a massive industry,” says Defruyt, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We need to convince the big players that this is a worthwhile effort. And to do that, we need to make it clear that this could be good for business, not just good for the planet.”

Right now, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is committed to making the case that reusable packaging can actually be more profitable for a company. For instance, when a customer invests in buying a brand’s reusable bottle, they’re more inclined to come back to that brand for refills going forward, which could drive brand loyalty. There are also interesting possibilities for creating personalized bottles for the customer. “Brands could be creative and invite customers to design bottles with their name on it, or in the color of their choice,” he says.

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Defruyt points out that things will only start to change if enormous consumer packaged goods conglomerates, like Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble, begin to make sustainability a bigger priority. Both of these organizations seem to be open to sustainable solutions since they are among a group of companies taking part in a pilot program called Loop that would send reusable bottles to customers, which would be sent back to be cleaned and refilled. (One of the products designed for Loop was a tabletized toothpaste.) This is encouraging, Defruyt says, but far from enough. To curb our plastic and carbon pollution, we need to develop a range of solutions, and execute on them quickly.

[Photo: Bite]
It’s also important to convince consumers that a more sustainable system can be more convenient. For instance, buying products in tablet form means not having to lug large bottles of cleaning supplies home from the grocery store, or having big boxes shipped to your home. Reusable bottles are also generally better quality, since brands often invest more in creating products that have a long-term use. “There’s something about reusable packaging that seems so old-fashioned, like returning to the days of the milkman,” he says. “We need to change people’s minds, and show them that reusable products can be more convenient and fun to use than disposable ones.”

From my own personal experience using these tablets, I don’t think it will take consumers very long to see the benefits. When Blueland’s kit arrived on my doorstep, I took out the bottles, plopped the tablets inside and watched them fizz. Then, I used a spray to clean off the sticky fingerprints my daughter left on our shiny aluminum fridge. The whole system was easy to use, and, as a bonus, it was good to know that my clean house wasn’t coming at the expense of polluting the planet.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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