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Reinventing the plastic bottle is the next frontier of sustainable laundry

September 27, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a series of special reports on how business can lead the fight against climate change. This quarter’s stories explore new markets emerging in the sustainability space.

As a U.S. Army helicopter pilot during the Iraq war, Chris Videau regularly watched smoke from pits of burning trash dissipate over the devastated landscape. He has been struggling with lung issues ever since. 

“My pulmonologist said it was likely the plastic inside the trash that caused the lung damage that I have,” Videau said. “That gave me the mission. I told my wife, ‘One day we’re going to open a plastic-free business.’”

Eventually he saw an opportunity in the laundry detergent space. 

In recent years, the laundry industry’s biggest companies have increasingly set a number of sustainability goals around reducing plastic packaging, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, using less water, and cutting out toxic ingredients that can disrupt aquatic ecosystems. 

And a growing number of startups are seeing the laundry packaging, which has traditionally been a plastic bottle, as the holy grail.

Every year Americans use an estimated 1 billion plastic laundry jugs—which are made from fossil fuels and can last for hundreds of years— and only about 30% are recycled. The rest contribute to the planet’s massive plastic problem, polluting waterways and oceans and harming aquatic organisms.

Sheets Laundry Club, which Videau launched with cofounder Chris Campbell in January 2020, is at the forefront of a group of e-commerce eco-startups that are now looking to get rid of plastic altogether, using zero-waste packaging, and making nontoxic detergent that cuts greenhouse gas emissions. 

Sheets’ detergent comes in the form of lightweight, postcard-size sheets; Earthwash, Tru Earth, Earth Breeze, and Kind Laundry have all entered the market with similar products within the past three years. Dropps and Smol concentrate the product into lightweight pods. Cleancult offers its detergent in refillable glass bottles; Dirty Labs uses recyclable aluminum. 

The industry shift started earlier—Dropps introduced concentrated laundry pods in 2005, and many of the biggest companies followed—but has picked up momentum and new entrants more recently. A 2018 Technavio Research report cited the emergence of eco-friendly products as one of the biggest trends shaping the global laundry care market through 2022, and more recent evidence points to an acceleration of that trend. 

A May 2021 report produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit found that consumers around the world are increasingly concerned about climate change and biodiversity loss, and that awareness is impacting their purchasing behaviors. Between 2016 and 2020, online searches for sustainable goods rose 71%. And another January 2021 study of green consumerism found consumers ranked finding “products with less packaging” above other environmental concerns. 

Changes in consumer purchasing behaviors related to COVID-19 also gave these eco laundry startups a boost, since many sell their products exclusively online. According to Digital Commerce 360, online retail sales increased more than 30% in 2020 compared to 2019 and were up close to 40% in the first quarter of 2021, suggesting online sales growth is ongoing. 

As forces related to climate and COVID-19 converge, business is booming. Just before the pandemic hit, Sheets set a goal to sell 25,000 boxes of its product in its first year. Those sold within the first 90 days, and despite manufacturing challenges, the company hit about 100,000 in 12 months. Tru Earth’s growth during the pandemic was so rapid, it added 100 employees, and Dropps secured a new $16 million investment and was ranked 289 on Inc. magazine’s list of the country’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies. 

And increased attention from investors suggests the market is primed for expansion. In the past year, Crunchbase called Dirty Labs a “startup to watch” after it secured $1.8 million in seed funding, while Smol raised $34 million in a Series B round. Prophecy Market Insights predicts the market for green cleaning products globally will grow from $3.9 billion in 2019 to an estimated $11.6 billion by 2029.

Avoiding “Greenwashing”

As the market develops, there are some challenges ahead. Given the fact that eco-claims are voluntary and unregulated and consumers are concerned about greenwashing, these companies will have to differentiate themselves by backing up their varied claims around sustainability. 

“Sustainability is not an end state, and you’re always trying to improve on whatever you’re doing either from an ingredient standpoint or a packaging standpoint,” said Jonathan Propper, the CEO and founder of Dropps. 

It starts with shrinking the product and cutting packaging. Since traditional detergents mostly consist of water, many companies have been moving toward concentrating the product. Propper said Dropps maximizes that concentration by using enzymes, with pods that measure just nine grams compared to others in the industry that are about 20. 

Not only does that save more water and packaging, it also cuts greenhouse gas emissions during transportation. Propper said Dropps’ pods are about four times more efficient compared to traditional liquid detergents by weight, so the same truck can transport more product, resulting in significantly less fuel use. Detergent in sheet form is even lighter. Sheets Laundry Club says it can ship six boxes of its product for every one bottle of comparable liquid. 

Both companies use compostable cardboard packaging so plastic waste is a nonissue, but one form of plastic—a biodegradable coating called polyvinyl alcohol (abbreviated as PVOH or PVA)—is key to the formulas that allow for the detergents to stay in one piece and then dissolve in the wash. Past peer-reviewed studies have found the coatings effectively biodegrade and that the films are not present in marine environments, but one recent study questioned that data, finding that without the right conditions in wastewater treatment plants, the material may not biodegrade. 

Samara Geller, a senior healthy living science analyst who manages the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning, said that the science is evolving and that the organization is currently working on reviewing all of the research on polyvinyl alcohol. 

EWG is one of the best resources for checking claims on how ingredients in laundry products affect the environment, but the organization is working to keep up with the new formulations as they enter the market. 

The organization’s database, which ranks products on environmental and human health toxicity, gives Dropps’ detergent high marks, but it has yet to evaluate the others. Geller said her team is working on evaluating some detergent sheet products now, but that consumers can still look up the individual ingredients used in the products. One of the most responsible things companies can do, she said, is to provide full ingredient lists on their websites and packaging. 

“There is just a lot of greenwashing that goes on in the space and a lot of unlabeled chemicals, so it’s really hard for us to determine what’s making it out there into the waterways,” she said. “We’re looking at ingredient transparency as a key element.”

Geller said third-party verifications can also be useful. For example, Dirty Labs and Dropps both use the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice label, a voluntary certification that uses EPA criteria to confirm ingredient lists are safer for both human health and the environment. EWG also offers its own certification companies can opt for.

In addition, Propper is utilizing a framework called Cradle to Cradle that evaluates ingredients across multiple environmental metrics, and he said the company’s goal is to continuously improve its impacts while also demonstrating to consumers there is no tradeoff in terms of how well the products perform. “You don’t have to give up efficacy for sustainability,” he said. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”

At Sheets, which is based in North Carolina, Videau is planning on opening a second fulfillment location on the West Coast later this year, to cut shipping times for buyers and carbon emissions from cross-country shipping. His research and development team is also working on extending the product line to sheets that can be used as floor, glass, and all-purpose cleaners. The company says it’s on track to sell over 600,000 boxes of laundry detergent this year, which would remove a million plastic containers before the end of next year.

One advantage the newer companies have over the bigger laundry brands, Dropps’ Propper said, is that they’re starting from a place of innovation, unlike established companies that have embedded, expensive manufacturing systems built to fill plastic jugs with emissions-intensive liquid detergents. 

Propper sees consumers’ growing commitment to sustainability as driving their company’s growth. 

“I think we definitely passed a tipping point,” he said. “My generation wants to leave a better place for future generations, and the younger generations want to make sure that they have a place—all of that is converging.”

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