Seventh Generation, the cleaning product company known for its natural products, has spent years tweaking its packaging to improve sustainability, including a massive push to use more post-consumer recycled plastic. But the company is now using a different tactic, and beginning to move away from plastic completely, starting with a new line called Zero Plastic Homecare.
“What we realized is that we really need to take action and move ourselves as a business away from plastic, because as good as the plastic is or as little you use, recycling alone will never solve the problem,” says Seventh Generation CEO Joey Bergstein. In the U.S., according to an EPA report last year with the most recent data, only around 9.1% of plastic waste is recycled; another 15.5% is burned. The rest—26 million tons per year—ends up in landfills. That’s despite years of effort to improve recycling rates.
To eliminate plastic in the new line, the company rethought the products themselves. By using non-liquid products, the containers don’t need plastic to act as a “moisture barrier.” “If we remove plastic from the equation, that means removing the liquid from the equation as well,” says Joe Giallanella, who leads the company’s growth incubator, the team tasked with eliminating plastic from packaging. The new hand soap comes in a powder instead of a liquid. The dishwasher detergent comes in tablets. The new kitchen cleaner is a powder instead a spray; a foaming toilet cleaner is also a powder. They’re used differently than typical cleaning products. A powdered kitchen cleaner, for example, is sprinkled on a wet cloth and rubbed to make a lather (the cleaner can also be added to a bowl of water to make a solution, or sprinkled directly on a dirty surface).
By using what they call “dry-locked” products, it’s possible to avoid the need for plastic to protect them. The team considered various options, but landed on steel in part because it’s so much more likely to be recycled than plastic. The recycling rate for steel cans is around 70% in the U.S. “What we really liked about steel is the way that it can be part of a circular economy,” says Giallanella. “The steel that we’re using already has about 25% recycled metal in it, and then steel is infinitely recyclable, so it won’t degrade over time.” Because the material is also durable, it could also be used if the company decides to test refillable packaging.
The company is launching the line first through Grove Collaborative, an online retailer also focused on sustainability (Grove also happens to be the first plastic-neutral retailer, meaning that for every ounce of plastic it sells, it will divert a corresponding amount of plastic from the ocean.) For Seventh Generation, it’s a chance to test the new products to see how consumers respond. “It will be different to be cleaning a toilet bowl without a liquid, and it will be different cleaning a countertop by using a sifter to put powder on the countertop as opposed to using a spray bottle,” he says. “That’s what we’re excited for consumers to engage with, and for us to have that avenue to be able to listen and learn from them.”
Over time, as new packaging options become available like water-resistant, plastic-free paper bottles, the company will continue to evaluate new materials. Steel has some advantages, like a lower carbon footprint in mining than aluminum, but does still have an environmental impact. “We’re planning to continually iterate between now and 2025 to make sure that this is as sustainable a product as possible,” says Bergstein.