The pandemic has helped reduce global greenhouse emissions by some estimates. But it’s also unearthed mounds of plastic from single-use products—hand sanitizer bottles, soap bottles, gloves, masks, etc.
While some of these are current essentials, the pandemic has pushed the debate around plastic packaging to the forefront. The soap category is one where viable alternatives exist: refill soaps, bar soaps, or a somewhat new solution, dissolving soap tablets. As sales soared this year for the soap industry, some environmentalists have been cautioning consumers about all the plastic that comes with their soap purchases — that too, multiple times times a year.
“Shipping around water, which is basically what we’ve been doing with liquid soap for years, didn’t make sense to me,” says Sarah Paiji Yoo, cofounder and CEO of Blueland, a startup looking at new packaging solutions for soap and cleaning products.
Liquid soap is popular because of its convenience factor, ease of use, and, well, lack of messiness. It’s also encouraged in certain settings to ensure hygiene. That said, it’s mostly water. And that water is packaged in plastic bottles, which may or may not be recyclable. Plus, even if they are recyclable, the recycling system and infrastructure has its own challenges.
In 2017, Paiji Yoo became a mom and was taking a break from launching brands to figure out a better work-life balance for herself. She also took a keen interest in the DIY and zero-waste movement at that time; she began making her own toothpaste tablets, deodorants, and other personal care products at home. While there were some refill models available in eco-friendly stores across the U.S., the solutions were time-consuming, not user-friendly, and mostly in scattered locations only throughout the country, she recalls.
So she invited 50 of her friends and family to test out the toothpaste tablet idea: would they be willing to make these tablets at home or use them even? The response she found was, “not really.” But it was not because they didn’t care — rather it was because the process took time, resources, and knowledge that many just didn’t have.
That led Paiji Yoo to partner with supply chain expert John Mascari to start Blueland, a one-stop shop that would offer plastic-free solutions to soaps and cleaners. As investors pushed her to consider the soap market before personal hygiene, she invested in the R&D of soap tablets. Hiring Cradle-to-Cradle, a third-party that specializes in circular designs and sustainability, to look into their supply chain, dig into the ingredients being used, and help them develop products that would perform but also be price competitive, Paiji Yoo dove deep into the science behind eco-marketing claims.
Although hand soap is their most popular product, and available in tablets that are under $2 each, making them competitive with a new pump of liquid soap, it was laundry detergent that actually took them two years to fully develop. “The formulation is not so simple,” she says with a sigh.
To make their laundry detergent, Blueland started digging into water-soluble plastics, or polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). These are commonly found in laundry and dishwasher pods as the exterior barrier. Although they are designed to break down in perfect conditions, she explains, those “ideal” conditions don’t always exist. Blueland’s research discovered that the majority of PVA particles can actually be released into our waterways. “Studies estimate that this about 60 to 80 percent of PVA particles are still intact,” she says.
“When I started Blueland, I didn’t foresee the kind of intensive research we’d have to do. But we started the company to actually address some of these environmental issues. So we’ve had to do it — even if it slows us down.”
This summer, the company released dish and laundry soap that’s powder base. Their dishwasher tablets are PVA free and don’t have any plastic packaging.
Customers have had mixed responses: some love the alternatives. Others have commented that they don’t perform as well as their conventional counterparts. But some of these details, Paiji Yoo admits, are works in progress. For instance, for the hand soap, the pump, not the tablets, she says, were the problem: “They were not releasing as much product in a foam. So we’re working on retooling that.”
But as the demand for soap and cleaning products has skyrocketed this year, Blueland has encouraged consumers to think about all the packaging they’re buying with each purchase. “I didn’t understand when every time we would run out of a cleaner or soap, we’d not only go out and buy the product, but also this plastic bottle with it — over and and over again,” she says.
Even the bigger players are looking at how to cut down on their plastic footprint, for example by investing in concentrated formulas — and reducing all that water weight from being shipped around the country.
In 2017, when Paiji Yoo and Mascari launched the company, the discussion around environmental issues was not as wide stream, she says. “It’s definitely grown in the last two years, and I hope it continues to become more prominent.”