Virginie Helias remembers the 2017 World Economic Forum well. At that time, the American consumer goods group Procter & Gamble (P&G), together with the disposal specialist Terracycle, presented a new bottle for its Head & Shoulders shampoo. The special thing about it: It was largely made from recycled plastic bottles that had been collected on ocean beaches. The internal reactions from management were extremely positive, says the top sustainability manager in the group. “Many thought the idea was great, because no one initially asked whether it would pay off.” The bottles were then initially sold in supermarkets of the French Carrefour chain and later expanded to a total of 20 countries. To date, around a million bottles have been sold. Another project is currently being implemented: When the winners of the Olympic Games in Tokyo receive their medals this summer, they will stand on pedestals that are also made of ocean plastic. P&G is collecting the material.
Such successes are lighthouses, which also get a lot of attention thanks to skilful marketing. Virginie Helias knows that the real problem of plastic waste in the world’s oceans cannot be solved. But a new dynamic has developed in recent years. “The question today is no longer whether something needs to be done, but what.” In the meantime, the companies no longer tried to do it alone, but rather, competitors increasingly worked together. This is the only way to ultimately come up with market-oriented solutions that the consumer also accepts. Because only around 15 percent of consumers are willing to accept noticeable price increases for environmental protection without complaint. The rest are very sensitive to higher expenses. Procter & Gamble has joined an alliance against the waste of plastic. The London-based organization includes Henkel and BASF from Germany. The aim is to get meaningful and coordinated projects on the way. “Because it is not the money that is lacking, but the projects,” says Helias.
The fight against plastic waste is one of the major sustainability issues in Davos. For example, the beverage company Coca-Cola and the Chinese online retailer JD.com launched a joint initiative in the Middle Kingdom to recycle single-use bottles. A pilot project for 50,000 households is already underway in Shanghai: When JD employees deliver the ordered goods, they also collect old plastic bottles for reprocessing. An expansion to other cities is planned. Coca-Cola announced two years ago that it wanted to recycle all of its packaging by 2030. The World Economic Forum also provided a large stage for the 19-year-old Indonesian Melati Wijsen, who founded the “Bye bye plastic bags” initiative with her sister in Bali in 2013. Thanks not least to the commitment of the two sisters, plastic bags have been banned on the island since last year. In Davos she belongs to a group of young people who have achieved a lot through their commitment.
600,000 tons of plastic on the Ganges
The plastic problem of the oceans has to be tackled at the root, says P&G manager Helias. And that is mainly in Asia, since most of the sea sculpture comes from the five countries of China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. 93 percent of this waste is flushed into the oceans from ten rivers, almost all of which are in Asia. That is why the Plastic Alliance started its first project in 2019 on the Ganges, the third longest river in the world, in which an additional 600,000 tons of plastic end up every year. The river residents are to be informed about the consequences of the littering by means of targeted campaigns. In addition, municipalities along the river will be helped to fish the plastic from the river and recycle it thanks to modern technology. This can be worthwhile because it is a coveted resource.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that around 5 million tonnes will be missing by 2025, says P&G manager Helias. That is why around 30 companies have joined together to form the “Holy Grail 2.0” project, including P&G. The goal is to make sorting for recycling more efficient. For this purpose, packaging for detergents or food is given a digital watermark, which is incorporated into the plastic packaging and is practically invisible to the customer. The watermark is read by a special camera in the waste sorting system and sorted accordingly. This saves a lot of human working hours, explains the responsible manager Gian De Belder. The project was developed between 2016 and 2019. It is tested in Germany by the sorting specialist Tomra in Koblenz.
The system could then be launched in a test market next year. Germany is one of the candidates, De Belder reveals. The digital watermark is not only limited to recycling, but can also be used in other areas such as production or sales. It is important that as many supporters as possible are found, says sustainability manager Helias, because only then can it be operated economically. “The barcode would not have prevailed if it had only been introduced by one company,” is their comparison.