Nearly every survey of American consumers shows they want to make an effort to purchase products that are less harmful to the environment. Whether shoppers buy the products when they see them in the store is another matter. Procter & Gamble Co., the consumer products giant, is experimenting with new kinds of packaging that could reduce the volume of household garbage. And the Cincinnati-based concern is hoping consumers will do their part.
Coming to U.S. stores this month is a new crushable, paper package for Downy fabric softener. Consumers buy the concentrated form, called Downy Refill, and mix it with water in the reusable plastic bottle.
"I can put out packages that reduce solid waste by 75 percent," said Robert M. Viney, associate advertising manager for Procter & Gamble. "But if only 5 percent of people use it, that's only a 3 percent impact."
In a telephone interview, Viney, whose main duty at Procter & Gamble is guiding the company's environmental marketing policies, discussed how Downy Refill fits into an overall scheme of reducing the volume of trash.
If Downy Refill catches on, expect to see a host of new packaging concepts from Procter & Gamble and its competitors, who together produce wraps, containers and boxes that account for a third of all municipal solid waste.
Already, products similar to Downy Refill are sales success stories in Europe, where Procter & Gamble has marketed them specifically as products that help reduce household waste.
Are Europeans simply more receptive to environmental issues than Americans?
Viney doesn't think so. He says Procter & Gamble started the marketing in West Germany in 1987 because heavier population densities meant "all those things ran out for them faster than they ran out for us. They're about 10 years ahead of us."
Viney adds: "There's nothing un-American about this. There's a concern and willingness to take action. What happens in the United States will mirror what's happened elsewhere earlier."
Consumers may not have much choice anyway. The federal government is mandating more recycling just as many states, including Florida, are requiring communities to reduce what they bury in landfills and burn in incinerators.
There are some tangible incentives. With lower materials, transportation and handling costs, smarter packaging saves the manufacturer some money, which it can pass along to consumers.
But any savings in cost is hardly something the company wants to promote. That's because consumers expect the savings to be about a dollar per package, according to surveys, when the real savings is only measured in pennies.
"It's a major misconception," says Viney.
In U.S. test markets, Viney says, 20 percent of Downy sales are in the refillable product. The company considers that rate enough of a success to shift Downy Refill sales nationwide.
Viney says Procter & Gamble changed its fabric softener packaging first, as opposed to its more popular detergents such as Tide or Cheer, because the product was chemically easier to make in a concentrate form.
"The Tide liquid product is already so concentrated for cleaning and stain removal that there's not much opportunity to concentrate it further," says Viney.
Also, many of the company's stronger products, such as floor detergents, could not be packaged in paper because they would break down the box and leak, Viney says.
But Procter & Gamble has other solutions. For example, for Spic and Span Pine bottles, the company is using 100-percent recycled plastic from 2-liter plastic soft drink bottles.
And for gallon jugs of Tide, Cheer, Era and Dash, Procter & Gamble is using 25-percent recycled plastic from milk and water containers. Viney says the company would use a higher percentage, but not enough plastic is recycled.