The consumer goods giant is looking to fulfil increasing consumer demand for plastic-free packaging, though bars account for only 2% of the European market. Mike Scott reports   

Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble has moved to reduce its plastic packaging by introducing shampoo bars across some of its biggest brands, joining a growing trend for plastic-free and “waterless” beauty products.

The move, which was announced at the Reuters Responsible Business Europe summit in June, will see the bars rolled out on its Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Herbal Essences and Aussie brands. The new bars are the equivalent of up to two 250ml liquid shampoo bottles. 

Artur Litarowicz, senior vice-president and general manager of beauty for P&G Europe, said the new products were introduced in response to consumer demand. While 65% of European consumers want to reduce plastic use, he said, bars are only 2% of the market in Europe at the moment. 

We need to have consumers on our side because that creates a higher likelihood of being able to introduce new products

“Bars are more sustainable, but there have been barriers to performance until now. Consumers believed there was no performance and no fun there. We have tried to change that,” he said, by bringing superior performance and a good user experience.

For now, the bars will be sold alongside the traditional bottles, Litarowicz said. “Consumers are not yet ready for a 100% switch to bars. To accelerate sustainability, we need to have consumers on our side because that creates a higher likelihood of being able to introduce new products.”

Alex Lankester, director of partnerships at WWF, also spoke during the P&G session. “There is a massive plastic crisis,” she said. “We are starting to see impacts on human health. Business has a huge role to play in mitigating the crisis. There’s so much that can be done. The power of brands is immense.”

Shampoo bottles on a supermarket shelf. (Credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters)

According to the United Nations, plastic production soared from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at US$522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 2040. (See Policy Watch: Can the world summon the political will to end plastic pollution?)

But, she added, there are challenges as well. “There is a huge demand for recycled material but there is just not enough available. We don’t have the infrastructure or the systems.”

For those to be in place, there must be policy change, Lankester pointed out, but the business community can play an important role in driving that and building on the United Nations’ treaty to end plastic pollution, which was agreed earlier this year, and the European Union’s Packaging Waste Directive.

We need to design products to be recyclable and reusable

There is a need for more circular economy in packaging, said Gian De Belder, technical director for packaging and sustainability at P&G. “We need to design products to be recyclable and reusable.” In addition to the bars, the company is also looking at refill systems using aluminium bottles with recyclable pouches. Chemical recycling, which breaks down plastic into its constituent chemicals, also offers great promise, he said. 

There is also a need for companies to collaborate with key competitors to improve the recyclability of packaging, he added.

Since 2021, P&G Beauty has reduced virgin plastic usage by 50%:  10,000 tons a year, or the equivalent of 300 million virgin plastic bottles. It says most of its shampoo and conditioner bottles are now technically recyclable, with more than half of its shampoo bottles in Europe are made from recycled plastic. 

P&G is not the first big consumer brand to launch a shampoo bar product. Unilever also sells shampoo bars, through its Love Beauty and Planet brand.

Main photograph: P&G

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