This article was originally published on guardian.com as part of the series ‘Sustainability Unwrapped’ sponsored by Henkel.

Tricks up their sleeves: the packaging solutions that make for smarter recycling

By Duncan Jefferies

A perforated bottle sleeve and technology to split up flexible packaging are just two developments in Henkel’s work to tackle waste, all part of its wider sustainability campaign

The environmental fallout from unsustainable business practices is all too apparent. Global heating is causing more intense weather around the world, Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at a frightening rate, and entire ecosystems are now under threat. In this rapidly changing world, no business can afford to ignore the sustainability of its operations. But while some organisations do the bare minimum, others make sustainability the beating heart of their business model.

Henkel is one such organisation. Its “Factor 3” strategy has a goal of making all its products and processes three times more efficient by 2030. Henkel approaches the target from both sides, reducing input and improving output at the same time. For example, the company has a target of reducing the CO2 footprint of production by 75% by 2030, with 100% of electricity used coming from renewable sources by this time.

“To date, we have reduced CO2 emissions by 25% per ton of product, with 29% less waste per ton and a 24% reduction in water used per ton of product,” says Uwe Bergmann, director of sustainability management.

Targets such as reduction in waste water, water use, waste from production and energy consumption make up half of the strategy, while the other half focuses on delivering more value in the form of social progress, performance, and safety and health.

Henkel’s global reach and range of products means it can make a big difference when it comes to sustainable packaging. Eighty percent of the company’s packaging is recyclable and 10% of European consumer product packaging is made from recycled plastic, with a target of 35% by 2025. The fact that its Right Guard shower gel bottles are made of 30% recycled PET also creates annual savings of about 200 metric tonnes of new PET material.

“Whenever we develop new packaging it needs to be more sustainable,” says Thorsten Leopold, head of international packaging development for home care at Henkel. “And the best thing you can do is always to reduce the amount of material.”

Packaging engineers, working closely with partner organisations, have also managed to overcome some of the barriers to recycling found in certain categories of packaging, such as multi-layer packs, black plastic and product sleeves. Take the foil sleeve of the company’s Biff and Sidolin spray bottles, which is a different type of material to the bottle it covers. It’s important that consumers remove this sleeve so the bottle can be sorted properly at the recycling facility, so Henkel added a perforated seam to aid the process.

Comprehensive and efficient recycling solutions for industrial customers: Saperatec has developed an innovative, patented technology that among others allows the separation and recycling of flexible packaging that contains aluminum foil.

Flexible packaging, meanwhile, is made of multiple layers of film and foil bonded together, which are difficult to separate during the recycling process. Henkel is helping to change this through its membership of CEFLEX, a consortium of approximately 50 European companies and organisations that want to make flexible packaging easier to separate and recycle. Together with German startup Saperatec, it’s also developing a technology that can be used to split the layers of flexible packaging and make the resulting material available for recycling.

Of course, one company can’t change the entire packaging and recycling system on its own, which is why Henkel is a member of initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which bring together government, business and NGOs to tackle plastic waste and create a circular economy for the material. It also works closely with Plastic Bank, a social enterprise that turns plastic waste into money, goods and services for some of the poorest people in the world. And it aims to provide information on recycling and reuse to more than 1 billion consumers via its packaging and initiatives such as Henkel Beauty Care’s “Be smarter. Recycle” campaign.

Sustainability is a much wider issue than plastics and packaging. In 2011, Henkel was one of a group of companies from the chemical industry that established Together for Sustainability (TfS), which aims to develop and implement a global programme to assess, audit and improve circularity practices within the supply chains of the chemical industry. Gabriele Unger, general manager of TfS, says the market leaders in terms of sustainable chemical value chains have a deep understanding of the need to track not only their own sustainability performance, but also that of their vast pool of suppliers.

As a member of TfS, Henkel’s sustainability management was analysed by international rating agency EcoVadis in 2018 and found to be among the top 1% of the most sustainable companies worldwide. That’s no doubt down to the fact that Henkel believes improved sustainability and business performance go hand in hand.

It’s a belief shared by María Mendiluce, managing director for climate change and energy, cities & mobility and circular economy at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a global, CEO-led organisation of more than 200 leading businesses and partners working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world. “While sustainability is of course ‘the right thing to do’ for people and the planet, it is also the strategy that will deliver the best outcomes for the business,” she says. “Every business wants to be long-lasting, and sustainability is a way to help ensure that.” In other words, you could say their – and our – future depends upon it.

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