A first for L’Occitane en Provence: 100% recycled PET bottles using Loop technology

A first for L’Occitane en Provence: 100% recycled PET bottles using Loop technology

L’Occitane en Provence debuted a collaboration with Loop Industries in 2018 to integrate molecularly recycled PET into its product value chain. This week, the French beauty brand revealed its first limited run of 100% Loop-recycled PET bottles and presented a lightweight refill prototype that in time will replace all of its doypacks. David Bayard, Director Technical Packaging Development at L’Occitane, and Laurent Auguste, Europe Representative for Loop Industries, discuss these innovations and how production will scale up beginning in 2025 at Loop’s industrial site in France. 

Can you give us an overview of L’Occitane’s sustainability strategy?

DB: Our global packaging program from a sustainability standpoint is based on three Rs: Reduce, Recycle and React. In the first pillar, L’Occitane is addressing the issue of reduction in its purest sense – cutting down on anything that doesn’t have a specific use.

One example is the plastic spatulas in our cream jars. We are replacing these at the point of sale with cardboard spatulas, and for the end consumer we now offer metal spatulas that are non-corrosive and can be used over time. We’re also no longer using cellophane to wrap our boxes; the material will be totally phased out by 2023. To replace cellophane’s primary function, we’ve opted for coatings that ensure the same protection during transport. Swapping cellophane for more protective varnishes isn’t a pollution transfer; the new solution is a significant improvement as we’re applying just a few microns of varnish to each box.

How does your Reduce program target plastics?

DB: L’Occitane’s global mission is to decrease our use of plastics by 10% by 2025 versus our consumption in 2019. This means reducing our consumption and encouraging the reuse of our products. Historically, the brand has offered in-store refill systems for plastic bottles and more recently aluminum bottles. We’ve also launched and accelerated the number of refill fountains in-store. Today we are celebrating the 100th fountain worldwide (including 25 in France) at our store in La Defense near Paris. The concept now operates in 33 countries and we’re gauging how consumers react in different markets. However, there are still some regions where regulations don’t allow refill at the point-of-sale, such as in China.

This brings us to your second pillar, Recycle.

DB: Here the idea is to implement a circular approach throughout our value chain. In 2018, we committed to using 100% recycled plastics in our bottles by 2025, and we’re halfway there today as we’ve reached the 50% mark via mechanically recycled plastic. To reach the next 50%, our partnership with Loop kicks in.

How does Loop come into the equation?

LA: Just to provide a bit of background on our technology, we use a process called methanolysis to transform and depolymerize PET from diverse sources, including fibers. The feedstock is processed at a relatively low temperature – under 100°C – which results in a ‘pure’ product that is identical both aesthetically and mechanically to virgin plastic, but its production consumes less energy; our carbon footprint is 60% lower than that of virgin PET production. As we work with feedstock that cannot be mechanically recycled, we aren’t competing for material with the plastic bottle recycling stream, for example.

DB: We began discussions with Loop in 2018 and have now just produced our first products: a small run of 2,000 bottles for our Almond oil line made of 100% recycled PET from their site in Quebec.

You first launched refill formats in 2008. What changes are you making today to these products?

DB: Up to now refill pouches are multi-material, multi-layer or flexible films that are often difficult for recycling sorting centers to identify. Some consumers are turning away from the pouch format because they can’t be recycled. To address these issues, we’re launching a new refill format in 2023 that is the most lightweight PET bottle possible as its material weight is equivalent to a flexible film pouch, or 11 grams. Today, refill pouches account for about 10% of our efforts to reduce our use of plastic.

What was the technical challenge behind this ultra-lightweight refill format?

DB: When we began testing production, our suppliers didn’t want to venture below 17 grams of material per bottle, but we needed to bypass that to meet our goal of obtaining an equivalent weight to the doypack (11 grams) and in a recyclable material. Our new refill is in 100% mechanically recycled (and recyclable) PET. By the end of 2024 we will have entirely transformed our offer from flexible pouches to these lightweight recycled bottles.

We tested four different trial molds in four shapes. We opted for the shape with the highest mechanical resistance given that it has most even distribution of the material. From a design standpoint, this design also resembles the shape of our aluminum bottles. The very small neck was difficult to blow, but the diameter was key to simplify the refilling process as a bit of air can circulate between the mouth of the refill and that of the ‘mother’ container.

Sourcing feedstock is increasingly challenging in the current environment. What is Loop’s strategy here?

LA: Market demand is growing, so we are being realistic about the available levels of feedstock. We’re taking a country-by-country approach for this with a forecast production capacity of 70,000 tons for each of our three industrial sites: in Quebec, in France (slated to be operational in 2025) and South Korea. In Quebec, the bulk of our feedstock will come from the US market.

What is the cost premium for Loop’s PET versus a virgin grade?

DB: Naturally there is a surcharge for the material, but if we want to engage in a truly circular economy we need to invest. Today the cost of a virgin raw material doesn’t take into account the extraneous related factors like carbon impact and recycling costs.

Now that we’ve produced our first series of bottles with Loop’s recycled PET, it’s going to be about scaling up. By 2025, when Loop’s French factory begins operations, we need to have figured out the logistics to be able to allocate the plastic granulate to our injection suppliers.

How are you approaching glass as a way to cut down on your use of plastic?

DB: Our strategy is to contain our use of plastic while decreasing our carbon output. If we want to drastically lower our carbon footprint, we’d opt for plastic packaging exclusively, yet that would tip the balance for more plastic consumption. Glass is an energy-intensive industry, and to counter that we tend to favor suppliers who work with renewable energy sources, integrate recycled glass into our containers, and design lighter weight bottles to lower their glass content. We also don’t fire-finish our glass containers as that just adds another layer of energy expenditure.

L’Occitane’s third pillar, React, aims to make an impact beyond your product value chain.

DB: Yes, specifically how we can impact plastic pollution. L’Occitane’s sponsorship of Plastic Odyssey, the global education initiative, is one example. The program aims to engage local populations around the world to fight ocean plastic pollution via low-tech and open-source solutions around the recuperation and valorization of plastic in countries with little infrastructure. The ship leaves from Marseille on October 1st for a three-year journey.

David Bayard, Director Technical Packaging Development at L’Occitane (left); Laurent Auguste, Europe Representative for Loop Industries (right)

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