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Garbage Maven: Tide Pods ride wave of change in packaging

October 28, 2011 |  7:07 am

Windex Mini All-in-OneSC Johnson introduced a version of its popular Windex window cleaner earlier this year that's sold in a "snip 'n' pour" pouch, above left, so customers can refill old bottles with a concentrated Windex formula diluted with water from the tap. The company also is test marketing a contraption called the All-in-One, above right, a dispenser for concentrated versions of Scrubbing Bubbles, Fantastik and other cleansers. And in March, Procter & Gamble is scheduled to introduce Tide Pods, a “compacted” version of liquid laundry detergent in single-use capsules meant to eliminate the need to measure and reduce the overuse of soap.

These kinds of super-concentrated cleaners have come and gone since the '70s, with mostly limited success. But consumers will see a resurgence of them in the months to come due to the success of niche cleaning products and pressure from large retailers including Wal-Mart, which are seeking to maximize shelf space, reduce their environmental footprint and showcase their eco-stewardship.

For manufacturers, concentrated cleansers mean less water, less weight and lower shipping costs. For shoppers, the form and look of products used every week in the house could change dramatically. Among the benefits: fewer heavy bottles to lug and, perhaps most important, less packaging that needs to be recycled.

“Compaction allows us to do well while doing good,” said Len Sauers, vice president of global sustainability for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. “It reduces packaging through size reduction, which ultimately results in fewer trucks needed for transportation and a reduction in emissions.”

In 2008, Procter & Gamble compacted its entire liquid detergent lineup, and that resulted in a reduction of 40,000 truckloads, 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions and 15,000 tons of packaging per year, Sauers said. The Tide Pods are twice as concentrated as the 2x Concentrated Ultra Tide now on the market. The pods will dissolve in the laundry, much like dishwasher detergent capsules, and they will be packaged in plastic that can be recycled.

The Windex Mini pouch uses 90% less plastic packaging than a traditional 26-ounce trigger bottle, avoiding the transport of 1.5 pounds of water per bottle, SC Johnson spokeswoman Kelly Semrau said. If 20% of the 21 million bottles of Windex Original sold in the U.S. each year were refilled, the company estimates, it would avoid shipping 6 million pounds of water and save 350,000 pounds of plastic.

Clearly, reducing the water in common household cleaners has advantages. Yet customers do not always buy in. According to the 2011 Eco Pulse Study conducted by the Shelton Group in Knoxville, Tenn., 7 in 10 Americans are searching for sustainable products but will try a greener product only if it's comparably priced and a known brand.

Many consumers will choose comfort or convenience over the environment, according to Shelton Group research. Concentrates violate both values: A refillable bottle is inconvenient because it asks consumers to add water themselves, and it makes consumers uncomfortable because they have to guess as to whether the product is mixed properly.

The 2.9-ounce Windex Mini pouch makes a 26-ounce bottle of Windex and costs 40 to 50 cents less than a traditional bottle of Windex, according to spokeswoman Semrau. Still, “consumers think that it needs to be cheaper than that,” Semrau said, adding that SC Johnson is doing more studies on Windex Mini, currently available through the SC Johnson website.

The Mini pouches are shipped in a 100% post-consumer-recycled corrugated box, part of which can be turned into a photo frame. They are mailed through greenshipping.com.

The Windex Mini has become the company's online bestseller, Semrau said. Yet when a product requires real behavior change, “most retailers would kick us off the shelf before we'd even have time for an idea like this to catch on fire,” she said. The company does not know when the Windex Mini will be available in U.S. stores.

[For the record, added 1:34 p.m. Oct. 28: An earlier version of this article had said the SC Johnson product Windex Mini was sold on the website greenerchoices.com and shipped through Conservation International. Windex Mini is sold through the website scjgreenerchoices.com and mailed via greenshipping.com. The article also had said that SC Johnson sold cleaning product pouches in China and Canada; it does not.]

Dizolve, a dissolvable laundry detergent sheet from the Canadian company Dizolve Group, also is available only online in the U.S. Introduced earlier this year, Dizolve uses 90% less water and 85% less packaging than most traditional liquid laundry detergents sold in jugs. The sheets, which are packaged in recyclable cardboard, are sold at Wal-Mart Canada and soon will be available through major retailers in Britain, France, Greece and Saudi Arabia. But the company is still looking for retail outlets in the United States.

“To get to the consumer and create awareness, for them to try it and then adopt it, we would require a $5-[million] to $10-million marketing campaign. We're a small company,” said Luc Jalbert, chief executive and co-founder of Dizolve. Jalbert said he hopes Tide Pods create a path for his detergent sheets in the U.S. market.

But even with a major corporate player blazing the trail, success isn't guaranteed. “Not every product is a grand slam out of the gate,” said Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the American Cleaning Institute, a trade group for U.S. cleaning product manufacturers. “Good ideas for different reasons haven't taken hold.”

-- Susan Carpenter

To suggest ideas for future installments of Carpenter's columns on household waste and recycling, email her at susan.carpenter@latimes.com.


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Photo: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times