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The challenges of big green: Scaling sustainability at Procter & Gamble

This story features Procter & Gamble, which uses biotechnology to create bio-based consumer products to address the needs of the consumer segment seeking to live a more natural lifestyle, without sacrificing product performance. Learn more about P&G’s sustainability goals at https://us.pg.com/environmental-sustainability/

The renewable and naturals product industry is blooming, and forward-thinking companies like Procter & Gamble are embracing the bio-based future. But production lags behind consumer demand. Scaling bio-based materials is one of the most significant challenges in the natural-products industry. And overcoming it could have a global impact.

Nicole Lloyd works in upstream research and development at Procter & Gamble (P&G). Her work spans both materials science and advanced packaging. She is deeply familiar with the difficulties of scaling bio-based materials. In our interview, she provided a behind-the-scenes look at the complex process of taking new materials from conception to production.

The first set of hurdles are the ingredients themselves. Plant-based materials are generally more eco-friendly but they can be perceived as less functional than  synthetics.  P&G has developed products that dispel this paradigm.

There are several types of bio-based ingredients. The easiest for manufacturers to incorporate are “drop-in” ingredients– bio-derived materials that are chemically identical to the petroleum-derived ones they are replacing. These would result in the same consumer experience but typically leave a smaller environmental footprint. Lloyd said P&G also searches for ways in which bio-ingredients can be utilized to improve the consumer use experience vs. standard ingredients. But bio-ingredients can present additional technical challenges and costs.

To begin, all of P&G’s bio-ingredients must meet each of the company’s fit-for-use criteria , including sustainable sourcing. These standards cover more than just a material’s cleaning power or how it feels on the skin. They also must work correctly with other ingredients, remain intact during transportation and ideally maintain the same shelf-life as synthetic  products.

Once a bio-material has been developed and tested, it must be produced on a large industrial scale to meet the needs of a global company like P&G. This presents the second set of hurdles. Today, the infrastructure for manufacturing bio-materials isn’t nearly as large or  efficient or optimized as it is for synthetic ones – but the future holds promise.

P&G isn’t trying to solve these production issues by itself. Instead, they partner with other companies to drive demand of bio-materials, which will jumpstart scaled production infrastructure to increase availability and affordability. P&G has traditionally leaned forward in the use of bio-materials to drive industrial scale, including a global launch of bio-PE in Pantene bottles.  P&G has also pre-qualified bio-materials in several other product and package applications.  Finally, P&G leads and invents in other sustainable material enterprises, such as novel technologies to enable closed-loop recycling, and partners with the industry to scale.   An exciting partnership here is with PureCycle Technologies. P&G has licensed its revolutionary process for taking the color, odor, and other contaminants out of recycled polypropylene, returning it to a virgin-like state, to PureCycle for scaled commercialization.  Construction for the first factory broke ground last summer. In their annual 2017 Citizens Report, P&G stated this technology could unlock the potential of billions of tons of recycled plastic.

The challenges associated with achieving scale for bio-based materials today, haven’t deterred P&G from answering their consumers’ calls for products with more natural materials. Nor has it limited the company’s environmental goals. In fact, the company’s green vision extends through their entire product development process, not just the final result.

P&G has a long list of sustainability milestones including powering all their plants with at least 30% renewable energy by 2020.  The company has also set a goal of zero manufacturing waste to landfills by 2020. Currently, 70% of P&G’s manufacturing facilities have reached this goal by either eliminating or finding other uses for all of their manufacturing waste. And, it has the added benefit of being more cost effective in the long run. The company reported saving $1.9 billion since the zero-waste program began in 2007.

P&G is looking to reduce waste further through different applications of bio-materials. Though much of P&G’s packaging contains recycled materials and are themselves 100% recyclable in many parts of the world the recovery infrastructure does not yet exist to prevent trash from ending up on the ground and in the oceans. Lloyd also explained that, in the developing world, P&G’s shampoos and detergents are typically sold in single/small use sachets that are affordable to low income consumers.  Lloyd said P&G recognizes the need for a better solution and is currently exploring a number of ideas.  Here too, P&G is actively partnering with others – start-ups, suppliers, NGOs, government agencies, and other product and package companies, to identify both near and longer-term solutions to this shared challenge.

Improvements in infrastructure is a major need as P&G looks to recover small items and flexible packaging such as sachets and pouches. Whether in developed or developing regions, P&G works hard to advance the infrastructure to enable continued innovation. They recognize both design and innovation and advances in the recycling infrastructure are needed to ensure no plastic flow to our environment or our oceans. P&G is engaged in many efforts some of which are specific to sachet re-design, material selection, collection systems, and processing.  P&G, looks to further existing relationships and build new ones to help our environment and provide consumers with more sustainable choices.

Bringing cutting-edge ideas to fruition could play a critical role in tackling global environmental challenges. But they won’t be realized, says Lloyd, if companies don’t work together.

The more desirable future is one in which companies using bio-materials work together to align on common criteria and production approaches that can be used in a wide variety of cross-industry products and packages. In these early days, that future is still possible. Lloyd acknowledged that often nobody wants to be first but that everyone wants to be second. Being first comes with a huge risk of failure, especially in an emerging market.

“But,” said Lloyd, “the environment is at stake.” “We’re doing this for a bigger purpose. If everyone goes second, we’ll never get there.”

Fiona Mischel

Fiona Mischel

Fiona Rose Mischel is a Los Angeles- based freelance writer and editor. She works primarily in the medical field specializing in heart disease, lung disease and diabetes. She also has extensive experience covering the intersection of mental health and chronic or terminal illness. Ms. Mischel's most recent work has focused on patient education in China and the use of social media as a healthcare tool.

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