Thinking outside the bottle: Werner & Mertz’s stand-up pouch
The first mono-material stand-up refill pouches made by leading German cleaning products company Werner & Mertz for its Frosch brand arrived on retail shelves in November 2019.
Since then, the Cradle to Cradle Certified® Gold packaging (the first ever to achieve Gold in all five Cradle to Cradle Certified performance categories) has received numerous sustainability accolades, including the German Packaging Award, the WorldStar Packaging Award from the World Packaging Organization, and the 2021 German Design Awards “Excellent Communications Design - Eco Design” award.
Werner & Mertz´s head of packaging development Immo Sander shares insight into the innovation of this revolutionary circular packaging product.
First, tell us how Werner & Mertz came to develop the stand-up pouch.
Developing a stand-up pouch that was not just theoretically recyclable but practically recyclable in the real world had long been on the Werner & Mertz agenda. In 2014 we began looking for 'single-material concepts’ as a means of fulfilling this goal. Our objective was to create a pouch of mono-material – instead of the usual multi-layer product – which could be printed and filled by using existing technologies.
These days it is hardly possible for just one company to come up with a new innovation like the pouch on its own: it genuinely takes a network to develop packaging for the circular economy. We quickly realized that we could only succeed in developing the pouch with the partnership of a packaging specialist, and we found exactly that in Mondi.
The result of our five-year project and partnership is the Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold stand-up pouch. The patented pouch is the first flexible packaging in the world to receive a Gold-level performance rating in all five categories of Cradle to Cradle Certified.
The stand-up pouch has been referred to as a revolutionary step towards circular packaging. What sustainability challenges were Werner & Mertz trying to solve through this innovation? What are some of the key sustainability features of the pouch?
Most traditional stand-up pouch concepts are made using multiple layers of materials, which can limit the circularity of the pouches. In addition, recycling of printed plastic film can be a challenge. We set out to create an alternative to traditional pouch materials that would eliminate the need for a multi-layer product and reduce the number of materials involved and solve the problem of recycling printed plastic.
Werner & Mertz Frosch consumer brand products have used stand-up pouches since many years due to the fact it saves 70 percent on packaging material compared to a typical plastic bottle for the same amount of product.
What’s more, the pouch design solves the problem of recycling printed plastic. 85% of all the packaging material is not printed and can therefore be recycled without any loss of quality. Because the printed label, which accounts for the remaining 15%, is fully free of adhesives and bonding agents, it too can seamlessly cycle back into new uses. The complete recyclability of the pouch was confirmed by HTP Cyclos and the independent Institute Interseroh, which certified that the stand-up pouch has "very good recyclability that cannot be optimized any further."
The pouch achieved a Gold rating in all five Cradle to Cradle Certified performance categories, including Material Health and Product Circularity. Tell us about the materials used to make the pouch - what makes it both safe and circular?
Material Health and Product Circularity are two key achievements for the stand-up pouch.
First, the pouch is made using a flexible polyethylene mono-material with a removable wraparound label. We applied Cradle to Cradle Certified Material Health methodology to assess, optimize and verify that the mono-material, the wraparound label and associated printing inks all met the Gold standard for Material Health performance as defined by the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard.
As a result, the product is not only safe, but after its use, 100% of the pouch can be recycled into material of nearly the same quality as the raw material.
Tell us about the design and innovation journey. How much collaboration was required with suppliers and partners across the supply chain?
The innovation journey began in 2015 when Werner & Mertz and Mondi established a project group together with The Green Dot (Duales System Deutschland), EPEA Switzerland and Cyclos-HTP. These three partners supported the product’s development with expertise on material selection, recyclability and the capacity to integrate it into existing recycling structures.
The first thing we did was to establish a common definition of the concept of “designing for recycling”. Then, we reverse engineered the product, challenging even our most experienced packaging experts to start from the end of the product life cycle, and create packaging fit for every stage of the recycling process. At the end of an intense innovation and development phase in 2017, we arrived at a stable, fully usable stand-up pouch made with polyethylene. The product was launched to the public in 2018 and made available in retail markets in 2019.
Beyond the packaging product itself, what other innovations and positive outcomes emerged as a result of this process?
Thanks to the involvement of all stakeholders along the entire supply chain, we were able to design packaging perfectly suited to recycling and the circular economy. The development of the stand-up pouch even influenced the design of sorting facilities. Because sorting and recycling equipment could not handle the plastic sheeting smaller than letter-sized paper, the material was thermally recycled, i.e., incinerated even though plastic sheeting typically makes up about 40% of household waste. During the years of development work, designers consulted with manufacturers of sorting systems in order to guarantee separate sorting and recycling.
What’s next on Werner & Mertz’s drive to circularity?
In 2020 Werner & Mertz converted all its Frosch brand pouches to the new design. In the future the flexible plastic packaging not only will be completely recyclable but also made of recycled materials. When sufficient amounts of packaging go into recycling systems that comply with Design for Recycling guidelines, this packaging solution can be realized with recyclates and spare the use of new materials.
Ultimately, as our owner Reinhard Schneider has said, "In this chicken or egg situation, we lay the foundation with our pouch and hope for imitators. After all, as far as climate change is concerned, we have no choice but to increase recycling rates significantly.”
The completely recyclable pouch is just the beginning of the development of recyclable flexible plastic packaging. Our goal is to have flexible plastic packaging that is not only fully recyclable, but is itself made of recycled materials.