Plastic Packaging: The laundry industry’s dirtiest secret


Chief Creative Officer at smol, Matt Gandy, looks at what he calls the laundry industry’s “dirty secret”: plastic packaging and what innovation the industry needs to find a solution to this problem.

Unfortunately, there’s no getting around doing your laundry – the average UK household gets through around 270 washes every year – and this means getting through over 109 million plastic packs per year*, the majority of which have traditionally been produced with virgin plastics.

Plastic provided a cheap, sturdy and convenient material for laundry brands to protect their products. Supply chains were established around plastic and have since relied on it for decades. And with every piece of plastic created still in existence, the mountain of waste is getting ever bigger.

Big Laundry sold nearly 300,000 single-use plastic packs EVERY DAY last year. That’s bottles, tubs and non-recyclable plastic “refill” pouches. The vast majority of these were made from virgin plastic and that clearly needs immediate action.

Big Laundry sold nearly 300,000 single-use plastic packs EVERY DAY last year.

The industry needs innovation if we’re going to see any of the top brands move away from plastic entirely. However, as overhauling the bulk of supply chains would most likely be a logistical and financial nightmare for most brands, instead, we’ve been given conservative targets with a splash of greenwashing.

laundryPledges have been made throughout the industry but reducing the use of virgin plastics and moving towards PCR only perpetuates a demand for plastic. More often than not, recycling has been sold as the answer to the laundry industry’s problem with plastic, but recent data from Greenpeace revealed that just 12% of plastic is actually recycled in the UK and currently many plastics can only be recycled once before degrading beyond use.

In stark contrast, paper and card are readily recycled, with rates of over 80% in the UK. It also takes 70% less energy to recycle paper than it does to make it new from raw materials. Second to perhaps the banana skin, paper is arguably the world’s best packaging. Managed responsibly and sustainably, the forests that supply paper mills can even work to reduce impacts on the environment, planting more than they take.

The public is wising up to greenwashing, which means it’s actions, not words they’re going to want to see – research shows that 93% of UK adults want companies to do more to protect the environment.

The public is wising up to greenwashing, which means it’s actions, not words they’re going to want to see.

The challenges of changing to sustainable materials in the laundry industry shouldn’t be underestimated. Laundry Capsules, for example, need two things to be delivered to consumers in the best and safest way possible; to be child impeding (by law all liquid products in a PVA pouch must be sold in child-impeding packaging) and to be protected from moisture (they are designed to break down in water).

Plastic seems like the perfect material for this. For example, its water resistance from an injection moulded plastic could be produced at scale and very cheaply. Cardboard on the other hand is not waterproof and needs complex engineering solutions to make a lockable box, potentially making it expensive and difficult to engineer. Difficult but not impossible – we should know as we’ve done it.

Ultimately, single-use plastic is the enemy and the collective power of the laundry industry is fundamental. The substantial changes we need to see, call for substantial solutions, and a substantial overhaul of our industry’s approach to packaging.

If you’ve got something to say about this opinion or would like to submit your own for consideration, email the editor at

*Source: IRI. Data is 52 weeks to 30th December 2021. Total no. of laundry packs sold in the UK = 155 million across all brands and formats sold in supermarkets. 109m of those are liquid, gel or capsules in plastic packaging.

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