An ocean of hope in a shampoo bottle

A new technology and the partnership that created it are literally closing the loop on plastic waste, inspiring companies, communities, and individuals around the world to help clean up our oceans.

P&G partnered with volunteer organizations to address the problem of plastic waste head on: by getting it off our beaches and out of our waters.
Photograph Courtesy Head & Shoulders

Over the past century, innovation in the products we consume have revolutionized our world, bringing advances from health to nutrition to billions of people around the world. Many have seen a massive increase in the standard of living, growth in life expectancy and the opportunity to enjoy those things that our grandparents could neither afford nor access. However, these advances have come at a cost to our environment. Such is the case with plastic.

With over a billion more people than we had fifteen years ago, plastic use has increased — and it will continue to increase over the next decade with a world population projected to reach 8.6 billion by 2030. At the moment, it is estimated that only fourteen percent of global plastic packaging is collected for recycling and only two percent is reused as packaging. But the visionaries who see the problem most clearly are also showing us the way to a solution.

“About nine million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year,” explains Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, a global recycling company on a mission to eliminate waste. “Every year more people are producing more waste. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in our oceans than fish.”

For Szaky, the solution lies in choosing products that are reusable or made with recycled materials. His company is known for finding ways to recycle the unrecyclable and forging partnerships to create products and packaging that help us all reduce waste. “We’ve been working with Procter & Gamble for well over a decade. They’ve been an incredibly inspiring partner because they’re able to address these issues head on in a huge global way, from making razor blades recyclable in the U.S, to diaper recycling in Europe, to collecting waste worldwide and finding new ways to recycle, including using recycled materials in their packaging and bringing reuse systems in a large-scale convenient way to the consumers of the world.”

A few years ago, Szaky and his team got a call from P&G asking for help in addressing the global plastics problem. For Lisa Jennings, Vice President, Global Hair Care at P&G, this was motivated by a personal passion and sense of mission and partnership. “I was personally touched when the NGO Race for Water showed us the scale and impact of plastics in the oceans and by the call to action by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to drive greater recovery and reuse of plastics,” she explains. “It inspired me and my team to do our part to drive more responsible consumption. The first step in the journey was to declare packaging made with recycled plastic as a core portfolio strategy and to mobilize the organization internally to challenge the status quo and create innovative solutions that are commercially viable and sustainable. This led us to TerraCycle.”

The first step in the process of this collaborative effort was to cast a wide net, engaging with a much broader community to address the problem of plastic waste head on: by getting it off our beaches and out of our waters. As Szaky explains, “We started working with them and their teams to first map out how do we even collect ocean plastic? We found that there are thousands of non-profit organizations from Girl Scout troops all the way to large organizations like the Ocean Conservancy and Surfrider Foundation that are cleaning up canals, rivers, lakes, beaches and even directly taking plastic out of the ocean. But they need a lot of resources and they don’t really know what to do with the waste once it’s collected.”

But Szaky and his team did. “We partnered with thousands of volunteers and hundreds of NGOs, giving them the logistical support they needed to pick up all of this waste and take it to our local recycling facilities where, through an intense amount of R&D work with the scientists at P&G, we developed a way to turn for the first time this degraded ocean plastic—much of it covered in algae, bacteria, sand and all sorts of different contaminants—into a high-grade plastic that is also recyclable.”

In June 2017, this effort kicked-off the world’s largest production run of recyclable bottles made with recycled beach plastic. P&G decided to use this technological breakthrough for the number one top selling shampoo brand in the word: Head & Shoulders. Since 2017, Head & Shoulders has produced more than one million bottles made with recycled beach plastic in more than 10 countries, diverting more than six tons of plastic that could have otherwise ended up in the oceans.

What’s more is that compared to the standard model of producing virgin plastic, its creators say this innovation is less energy intensive and emits 60% less CO2 throughout the production process. Later that year in October, Head & Shoulders received the United Nations Momentum for Change Award for this pioneering approach to diverting waste from beaches. This award program, spearheaded by the UN Climate Change secretariat, shines light on some of the most innovative, scalable and practical examples of what people across the globe are doing to combat climate change.

And just recently, P&G expanded this work to Herbal Essences in the U.S., introducing the brand’s first recyclable bottle made with beach plastic. Herbal Essences is continuing to partner with TerraCycle beyond this limited-edition beach plastic bottle in a nationwide take-back program to ensure every Herbal Essences bottle can be recycled. The take-back program will begin in time for World Oceans Day on June 8, 2019.

The ripples are moving in all directions now, from inside the corporate culture at P&G to beaches, lakes, and rivers worldwide. “This project has increased global awareness of the crisis of plastic waste and has encouraged consumers to recycle and take action by cleaning up their local water-ways,” says Jennings. “But it’s just the beginning. P&G Hair Care is a major sponsor of World Oceans Day and a Founding Partner of Youth for the Ocean, a new collaborative initiative from World Oceans Day with the mission of helping drive youth awareness on the importance of a healthy ocean through the year-round work of their Youth Advisory Council. We are also very excited and proud that Pantene is the first hair care brand to be part of the Loop Shopping Platform, the world’s first and only known platform that sells a wide variety of branded products in durable reusable packaging. And we’re working with partners to build infrastructure in emerging markets to keep recyclable plastics out of landfills and the ocean.”

Looking back at the statistics that inspired the creation of that groundbreaking Head & Shoulders bottle, Jennings muses, “As we walk this path, it is my intention that by 2050 we are well on track to leaving behind a planet that is better than the one we inherited.”