How We’re Addressing Our Plastic Use 

How We’re Addressing Our Plastic Use

Probably the greatest concern (or complaint) our customers have about our products is their plastic packaging. We do have some excellent non-plastic options for our customers—including our Bar Soaps and Body Balms—but the majority of our products are currently packaged in plastic.

We share our customers’ concern and know we have work to do to make our packaging more sustainable. So we are actively pursuing a multi-pronged approach to minimize the ecological and social impacts of our packaging, support circularity and reuse, and hopefully ultimately find alternatives to plastic.

Unfortunately, moving away from plastic packaging is not fast or simple—if a packaging solution existed that could effectively deliver our products to our consumers around the world and we had certainty that it was a more ecological option, we would switch right away. But there is no magic bullet, so for the time being, we have to pursue multiple strategies to first minimize and then mitigate our impact, while we work to develop better options. Read on to find out everything we’re doing to address the issue!

Post-Consumer Recycled and Recyclable Plastic: considering both the alpha and the omega

We consider plastic both in terms of upstream impacts—the origin of the material, and downstream impacts—the end of life for the material.

Nearly all of our plastic bottles are made from post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic, a practice Dr. Bronner’s helped pioneer more than fifteen years ago—in fact, we were the first American company to package liquid soaps in 100% PCR plastic bottles. Even today, most companies using plastic packaging don’t use PCR plastic, let alone 100% PCR. In fact, according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, only ~2% of the world’s plastic each year gets actually recycled into new plastic products. But we are committed to using PCR plastic as long as we use plastic, since we believe PCR plastic is a huge improvement over virgin plastic, even plant-based virgin plastic. PCR plastic takes less energy to produce than virgin material and more importantly avoids putting new plastic out into the world. Making PCR plastic products also builds market demand for recycled plastic, which helps make plastic collection and recycling more economically viable around the world.

We aim to get as much of our plastic packaging from post-consumer recycled sources as possible. In 2020 75% of our plastic packaging was 100% PCR content. Some bottles, such as our gallons and half gallon bottles, are unfortunately currently made from virgin plastic, but we are committed to changing that and are currently on track to make those out of PCR plastic by next year (2022). It’s been a challenge to find PCR plastic options for some  packaging bits and pieces—like our bottle caps, labels and sprayers—but we’re working on those too.

In terms of end of life, we know we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution problem our planet faces, and we dream of a day when all packaging can be composted or reused. But in the meantime, we think it’s important and practical to ensure that our packaging is as recyclable as possible. For recycling, the type of plastic matters, as well as the size, color, and even sometimes the shape. Recycling facilities, particularly those in the U.S., often rely on automated sorters and sensors to identify recyclable materials and funnel them into the correct recycling stream. In practice, this means that many plastics which should be recyclable are not correctly identified, and end up in landfill instead of being recycled.

For example, most recycling facilities have grates to sort out smaller items. If a plastic item is small enough to fall through the grates, it ends up in landfill, even if it is “technically” recyclable. For this reason we will be phasing out our 2 oz. bottles of Pure-Castile Soap, and replacing them with a 3.4 oz. size that is more likely to be correctly sorted as recyclable, while still being travel-friendly & TSA-approved.

Aside from smaller plastics, darker-colored plastics are often rejected by sorting machines and not recycled. This is because it is difficult to turn darker plastics into lighter colored pellets that can then be used to make new products with customized colors; there is less of an end market, so less incentive for recyclers to take the time to separate the material. That’s why we’re also working on replacing some of our darker plastics with lighter-colored plastics.

Reusing and Refilling

We’ve always encouraged customers to buy our soaps in bulk: buying or refilling a large container of soap and using that to fill smaller containers you have around the house is a great way to reduce plastic use. We love it when retailers offer refill stations for our soaps. We sell a five-gallon container of soap to retailers, along with a special spigot, and customers can then refill their own bottles with soap at the store.

We are looking at ways to incentivize more stores to offer this option and reduce our plastic footprint at the retail level, such as a program that lets stores return the empty five-gallon containers of soap to us so that we can then refill them. We are planning on piloting this program later this year at a local store in San Diego. If it works well there, we will expand the program to more retailers.

Exploring Plastic Neutrality and Reducing Global Plastic Pollution

Another strategy we are employing to reduce the impact of our plastic packaging is what is sometimes called “offsetting,” or in our case, “insetting.” You may be familiar with the concept of offsetting from the world of greenhouse gas emissions. Companies that emit greenhouses gasses can offset their emissions by buying credits to sequester an equal amount of carbon—for example, if they pay to plant trees that sequester an amount of carbon equal to what they emit through non-renewable electricity use. This means that they are effectively “carbon neutral”—even though they put carbon into the atmosphere, they are making sure that an equal amount of carbon is taken out of the atmosphere. “Insetting” is essentially the same concept as offsetting, but when the financial investments and environmental activities take place within a company’s own supply chain.

A similar concept to carbon offsets can be applied to plastic, allowing companies to pursue “plastic neutrality” by paying to recover plastic from the environment. This is a fairly new concept, and therefore the credits are sold in relatively new markets compared to carbon credits. In our case, we want to see if we can collect—and then recycle or reuse in some way—not only the same amount of plastic that we produce through our packaging, but also the same types of plastic that we produce, since we know not all plastic is equally recyclable. And, we want to invest in our own supply chain communities, as we have done with fair trade projects and regenerative organic agricultural efforts around the world that “inset” some of the carbon footprint of our soap production and support the communities where our raw materials come from at the same time.

We are currently researching how to collect plastic waste from the streets and lands and waterways in the communities that supply us with our raw materials—such as towns around Bareilly, India where our mint oil is produced, and Asuom, Ghana, where our palm oil is produced. These communities have little to no infrastructure for collecting plastic waste, and it either ends up polluting the local environment or being burned in piles which can create harmful air pollution. Our plastic insetting program would collect this waste as part of our suppliers’ fair trade business operations, creating new fair trade jobs, and allowing the material to then be recycled or downcycled locally, while the trash littering the communities is cleaned up as well.

But it’s still plastic!

At this point, you might be thinking, lower impact plastic packaging and fair trade plastic cleanup efforts are good and fine—but shouldn’t we be moving away from plastic altogether? The answer is a resounding yes, but figuring out how to do that, all while still providing quality and value to our customers, is not simple or straightforward.

When considering a material to replace plastic, we think about the entire lifecycle of the material. Many materials that appear at first glance to be more ecological turn out to be problematic when you look into them closely. Often the infrastructure and markets do not yet exist to support the full lifecycle of an alternative material, and it usually has hidden environmental and labor impacts to consider. We might identify a bio-based plastic that works for our products, but then must fully consider its agricultural impacts. Is the corn, sugar, or potato for the plastic grown with pesticides? Should that land be used for growing food or generating solar power instead? Another example is glass: at first glance it would seem to be a good alternative—but would probably be dangerous to have in the bathroom, and is so heavy that the greenhouse gas impacts for transporting it are significant compared to plastic, which is relatively light.Aluminum—with its “infinite recyclability”—seems promising, but has significant environmental and labor impacts when considering the mining and production of the virgin material, and we have struggled to find high-quality PCR aluminum sources.

Despite the challenges, we are committed to innovating better packaging solutions—and we are keeping close tabs on advances in ecological packaging and collaborating with many partners across the industry so that we can eventually utilize good alternatives to plastic.

Changing the infrastructure for recycling and composting 

As described above, it is not enough to produce technically recyclable or compostable packaging. If the infrastructure and economic markets don’t exist to sustainably support its end-of-life path, that packaging will most likely end up in landfill or simply leaked into the environment, polluting our lands, oceans, rivers, and communities. That’s why Dr. Bronner’s is supporting policies that will create additional recycling and composting infrastructure both in our home state of California and in the U.S. as a whole.

In California, we are major donors (through New Approach PAC) to the California Plastic Waste Reduction Regulations Initiative, which we’re aiming to have on the California State ballot for public vote in November of 2022. This initiative will:

  • Require producers to ensure that single-use plastic packaging and foodware is recyclable, reusable, refillable, or compostable by 2030.
  • Require producers to reduce the amount of single-use plastic packaging and foodware sold in California by at least 25 percent by 2030.
  • Require producers to use recycled content and renewable materials in the production of single-use plastic packaging and foodware.
  • Establish “mechanisms for convenient consumer access to recycling,” including take-back programs and deposits.
  • Establish and enforce labeling standards to support the sorting of discarded single-use plastic packaging and foodware.
  • Prohibit food vendors from distributing expanded polystyrene food service containers.

On the federal level, we are supporting the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (H.R. 5845). This bill would make packaging producers fiscally responsible for collecting and managing the recycling or composting of the packaging they create (after consumer use). It would also increase the minimum of recycled content that must be contained in packaging, and phase out the use of certain products, such as plastic utensils. We also support updating the FTC’s Green Guide to include more accurate information about what is truly recyclable.

At the local level, we are advocating to ban single-use plastics and invest in better composting facilities in the beach communities around San Diego County, including the City of Vista where we are located.

But there is more to be done. And we know we cannot do it alone.

We have partnered together with other companies to share pre-competitive best practices, leads, and collaborate on projects, including advocacy. We are proud to be members of the following working groups, and are excited to learn from other companies and work together to innovate and advance solutions:

And we need your help as consumers and partners.  Please join us and get involved with Plastic Free July to see how you can minimize plastic in your own life and be part of the solution!

Author Profile
Darcy Shiber-Knowles

Darcy Shiber-Knowles is the Director of Operational Sustainability & Innovation at Dr. Bronner's. She is passionate about food, environmental stewardship and community building, and is an accomplished singer and practicing yogi in her free time.

See all stories by Darcy Shiber-Knowles