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Types of laundry detergent packaging and how to recycle them correctly

We are wading through mountains of plastic every day. One of the main reasons we started ReCo is because we no longer wanted to engage in buying single use plastic packaging. We’ve done most of things we can, like BYO cup and reusable shopping bags. The next to tackle is our laundry and bathroom.

We started with an ‘audit’ of the products we used in the bathroom and laundry and brainstormed what we could do to reduce our plastic footprint. We tried shampoo bars, soap rather than body wash, toothpaste in tablet form, powdered toothpaste, and refilled detergent at a bulk buy store.

It’s great to see innovative, packaging-free products coming up. However, it wasn’t easy to get ourselves to use something like a toothpaste tablet to brush our teeth! We found ourselves going back to conventional products, even though it wasn't our ideal.

Can we come up with an innovative way to consume a conventional product, without throwing its packaging to the bin? With the question in mind, we started a year of research on the refill system and decided to use a laundry powder as our starting point.

We’re proud to say that we’ve done the research and experiment on the laundry detergent packaging in the market and we’re keen to share with you our findings. In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of the different types of laundry detergent packaging, how they can be recycled and share tips on how to correctly dispose these packaging.

1. Cardboard box packaging from laundry detergent

We had been proud of our choice of cardboard box packaged laundry powder before our research. The truth is not that simple. On the surface, it seems like the most environmentally friendly laundry option. It’s a powder, so we’re not transporting liquid from miles away to the supermarket. The cardboard box was what made us the proudest – because cardboard can be recycled indefinitely, no?

The underlying issue is, most of these cardboard boxes are coated in a plastic layer. This coating, the same that is used in plastic-lined takeaway cups, is to protect the laundry powder from leaking and humidity. In turn, this means they are impossible to recycle. So, what can you do? Well, choose ReCo laundry powder! (ta-da, marketing time – only with a good intention!). If you have a cardboard box packaged laundry powder at home, here are the two things you could do to dispose it correctly:

Tip 1: You may be able to determine whether the detergent box is laminated in plastic with the naked eye. This can be achieved by seeing if it's shiny, indicating lamination, or rip the cardboard and see if it's layered. If it’s not laminated, dispose it in the yellow bin.

Tip 2: If it’s laminated, you can still check with your local recycling facility to see if it can be recycled – they might have a special machine that can separate the plastic lining. In that case, yellow bin. If not, red bin.

If you are in Sydney, check out our laundry powder. You can refill as you go, no more plastic containers will be used – not to mention going to the bins!

2. Plastic bottles from laundry liquid

Laundry liquid is a popular choice when it comes to laundry detergent, but it’s stored in thick, hard plastic containers that are mostly made from PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate) or HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene).

When we were trialing our refill system, laundry liquid was the first product we tried to solve. Over three months, we found the process of using a refill system for liquid products complicated and decided to keep working on it as we develop ReCo.

If you must choose laundry liquid, we have some tips for you:

Tip 1: If possible, buy an ultra-concentrated detergent in bulk. Use the recommended dosage. This will help you buy less. Buying less means you will bin less too.

Tip 2: Reuse, Reuse, Reuse! These bottles are durable and can last a lifetime. An important note if you want to reuse them: buy toxin-free laundry liquid, so that you can use safely for many uses around the house, especially in the garden or with your children.

DIY & Crafts has some great ideas, including a DIY beach bucket, bird feeder and bubble refill station, the possibilities are endless.

Tip 3: Recycling - as the last option!  

Why should recycling be the last option?

Here’s a fact stated on ourworldindata.org for you: Much of the plastic we recycle can only be recycled once or twice. Then it will end up in landfill or incinerated ... Recycling only delays, rather than prevents.

Adding to this is the cost and energy to transport and recycle the bottles. Reusing them first elsewhere is more sustainable long term.

Plastic fragments, Provincie Limburg / Alf Mertens

3. Refill pouches for laundry liquid

Refill pouches are one of the most popular laundry refill methods. They are definitely a solution for reducing hard plastic bottle usage and carbon emissions as a result of the transportation of containers. It’s said that by using a refill pack, we could potentially use 83% less energy and 93% less packaging. While this may seem like considerable savings and have a positive impact on the environment, are they recyclable?

Similar to the plastic-lined cardboard boxes, multi-layered packaging is likely to just end up in the landfill. The plastic lid, usually comes with the pouch, would also add up to the workload of separating the materials.

So how do you dispose them? Some companies are doing a return and refill program, where the pouches are sanitised and refilled. However, transparency about the sanitisation process is limited. We doubt that these pouches can be heated up and sanitised indefinitely – it might be just a few times and that’s it, time for the bin.

Our tip is, maybe don’t use it at all – unless we know for sure there’s technology and resources to recycle them.

4. Aluminium containers for laundry liquid

Some laundry products are packaged in aluminium containers. Aluminium is light weight and is one of the most recycled materials.

However, here’s a chemistry knowledge for you: Aluminium is a very reactive metal, but it is also a passive metal. General corrosion, or uniform corrosion, occurs in the solutions where pH is either very high or very low, or at high potentials in electrolytes with high chloride concentrations. In acidic (low pH) or alkaline (high pH) solutions, the aluminium oxide is unstable and thus non-protective.

When running a trial on this, we tested laundry liquid stored in an air-tight aluminium container over six months. During this time, we noticed a deterioration inside and outside of the container and realised that it's not the most ideal environment for laundry liquid.

5. Laundry pods or strips

IImage from mcconnellvets.co.uk

Laundry pods wrapped in biodegradable packaging could be a good solution, but there have been safety concerns for children. There have been many cases of children ingesting these pods. If you have children in your household, we don’t recommend this option at all.

Alternatively, laundry strips have not had any poisoning of children reported, and while we don't have personal experience with them, reviews so far have been positive. 

Our solution: refillable laundry powder in glass containers

Our tip for all these packaging options above: well, just use our laundry powder, if you are in our delivery areas and if your budget allows.

In case you haven’t read about how ReCo works, we packaged SimplyClean’s laundry powder in our stylish glass containers. You order, we deliver. When you’re done, order a new one. We collect your container, and you receive a $2 discount for your next purchase. There is no commitment to refill.

Our product partner SimplyClean has been dedicating years of hard work to creating toxin-free household cleaning products. Plus, they perform as fine as conventional products. I often tell our customers; our laundry powder is as good as your favourite laundry liquid. They don’t contain any unnecessary fillers, meaning they dissolve perfectly in your washing, leaving no trace of residuals in your fresh clothes!

At ReCo, we believe in incremental change. If we can't get ourselves to use a shampoo bar, we don't expect our customers too either. We will only produce products that we believe in and will use, which is how we were left with the question - how can we reduce packaging for other products?

With growth and your feedback, we will continue to improve and design our infrastructure to support our goals and mission, including the introduction of liquid products.

Whatever your laundry product choice is - plastic container recycling, laundry detergent strips, or whether you are already using our sustainable ReCo laundry powder, we are all working towards the same goal to reduce our plastic footprint.

For now, we leave you with this quote from our Plastic Free July partner, Citizen Wolf: Sustainability is about the progress, not the perfection.

Anett Petrovics