Design,  Environment

A case study in sustainable packaging: Why can’t all soap be packaged like this?

Tell me why it can’t. So that in the distant future, they will know why we simply couldn’t have acted more responsibly.

This is not a rhetorical question. I simply do not know the answer, and I would like to hear from a packaging expert.

From where I stand in this grocery store, where one shelf is full of soap bars, all packaged in simple, colorful paper, without any plastics at all, it is not clear to me why the vast majority of soaps I find in the shelf above it, and the shelf below it, and in every mainstream store across America, need to be packaged with gobs of plastic film and sometimes, also in a foil-covered, plastic-impregnated box, one for each precious bar.

Dr. Bronner’s seems to do fine without any of that. I do not use Dr. Bronner’s. At $4.29 a bar at a Plum Market in Ann Arbor, many others also do not. I do not know exactly what marketing or other influences cause the price to be what it is, but packaging alone cannot account for the difference. If anything, it seems that packaging a bar of soap in plain, un-engineered paper printed in a single color must be fundamentally cheaper. I suspect that Dr. Bronner’s is more expensive simply because the production volumes are much lower than the prevailing mass-market brands, and the ingredients benefit less from engineering, as well.

Opening the package we find two components: a sheet of printed paper serving as the outer wrapper, folded around a thicker sheet that is wrapped around the product.

What does the company say about its packaging? At the very bottom of the label, we see that it is “printed with water-based ink on 100% post-consumer recycled paper” and that this will “relieve stress on our working forests.” This is all very encouraging.

But is it recyclable? I did not see that claim, nor any recycling logo that would indicate such. Could it be that this is a dead-end application for this admirably recycled paper, that will contaminate our other recyclables if we throw it in the bin?

Below you can see that the inside of the wrapper has a shiny surface. That could be either wax or plastic. If it’s plastic, that would be disappointing.

Water beads off it like a Corvette in a car wash. Hopefully like the Corvette, it’s just wax.

This got me wondering. So I placed both the label and the inner sheet in a pot of hot water and turned on the heat.

Below, the water has become good and hot, and the label does not look quite so waterproof anymore. That’s a good start. But let’s bring it to a boil. Now we will see what happens if this wrapper gets to the paper recycling plant.

Below, it’s come to a full rolling boil. The inner sheet is holding up well, but the wrapper is turning to mush. A good sign for the wrapper. It seems to be shedding its coating. But what is the coating? Will there be an unremovable coating of plastic in my pot when I am done?

Suddenly I notice a little yellow glob floating around in the water. What could it be? It looks like wax. It has a soft consistency. I doubt plastic would melt at this temperature.

After about five minutes of boiling and just a little stirring, both the wrapper and the inner sheet have been obliterated. We are well on our way to a recyclable mush of paper fibers. Get the deckle ready.

Below, the mixture has cooled down for about ten or fifteen minutes. Note the oily sheen on top. The fact that it is floating suggests that it could be skimmed off and removed from a paper recycling vat. Stirring a bit with my fork, I am reminded of skimming fat off a chilled pot of chicken soup. But what I get appears to be a soft mixture of wax and paper fibers.

Is it really only wax, or some concoction of wax mixed with plastic? After emptying the pot there was a lingering residue around the sides that was quite stubborn to remove, even in very hot water. Thankfully there is no one here to yell at me for ruining a pot. I managed to clean it up by scraping much of the residue onto a plate, then a hard scrub with Barkeeper’s Friend removed the rest.

I was left with what you see above. I still wanted to know if there was any plastic here, so I took it up on the fork, and lit a match under it.

It snapped and crackled, burning much like wax. It did not smell particularly of burning plastic, but could have passed for a failed variety of Yankee Candle. It sure did stick to my fingers tenaciously, though. Maybe some of it was the glue that sealed the package.

Verdict: the Dr. Bronner’s soap wrapper appears to be recyclable. I am not an expert in paper recycling, but the waterproof inner coating appears to be made of a substance that is capable of being separated out during the pulping process. The substance appears to be predominantly wax, but I was unable to positively confirm that it does not contain some plastic.

So I pose the question again: if this packaging method is sufficient for a high-end bar of soap that retails for $4.29, why is it not sufficient for all soap on our grocery shelves? And many other products as well? Even if it turns out to contain a little plastic, it is much more benign than the prevailing method of packaging soap in foil- and plastic-lined cartons, compulsively wrapped in plastic film as well.

Relatively cheap soap, in highly engineered, barely-recyclable cartons, wrapped in plastic film that will outlive the soap and anything it washes.

My own theory is that it is an indulgence of marketing. Many companies make soap, and they are all generally good at it (have you ever used soap that didn’t work?) The main creative challenge in running a soap company is not in soap formulation but in competing effectively with the others, through advertising and point-of-sale marketing. As a group, consumers react positively to shiny packages and bright colors and highly engineered packaging. These things carry subconscious messages about the quality of the product being considered, in those suggestible moments as we wander the store aisles. Highly engineered packages sell products. If Zest suddenly appeared in a humble paper wrapper, it might compete better with Dr. Bronner’s — but it’s competing with Irish Spring, Lever 2000, and their ilk, not Dr. Bronner’s.

The purpose of selling a product is not truly a functional purpose with regard to the product itself and our use of it. As Dr. Bronner’s shows, a plain paper wrapper with a little wax is sufficient for the practical purpose of protecting the product from damage, from the manufacturing plant through the shipping and stocking process, until it reaches the customer’s hands. We solved that problem more than a century ago, with paper and wax. What changed? Everything beyond seems an indulgence of marketing; of competitors jockeying for market position, with nothing, really, in it for us. If manufacturers did not have the option to package in unsustainable ways, the product would still get to us safely in a plain paper wrapper, and they would still be free to compete within that constraint, just as they did for generations.

Are we comfortable telling our children and their children that we knew how to package our products simply, effectively, and benignly, but we didn’t, because marketing was more important?

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *