HONG KONG — For Taiwanese cosmetics executive Steven Ko, the decision to make the world's first shampoo bottle from plant-based polylactic acid plastic was a natural one.
Ko suffers from extreme sensitivity to allergens, and he said he founded his organic shampoo company, Hair O'right, in 2002 partly out of concern about public health problems from exposure to heavy metals and chemicals.
He said he sees the introduction last year of the PLA shampoo bottle, which Hair O'right claims is the first globally, as bringing its packaging more in line with its environmental goals.
Next year, it plans to use PLA for all its new products, rather than the petrochemically-based HDPE bottles it usually uses, even though the PLA costs twice as much. Ko, who is Hair O'right's CEO, sees that as good long-term business thinking.
“The packaging is important to the environment,” he said in an interview at the recent CosmoProf Asia trade show in Hong Kong. “People who recognize this will be ahead tomorrow.”
Ko and Hair O'right are at one end of the spectrum on eco-packaging for the image conscious beauty industry — he sees growing consumer demand for sustainable, more carbon-friendly containers.
Others in the plastics industry, like Stefano Meazza, the CEO of Italian packaging molder Capardoni & C srl, are not convinced the market is there.
Capardoni has been manufacturing and marketing a cosmetics bottle made from plant-based polyethylene purchased from Brazilian resin producer Braskem for a year, with no success, he said.
“Everybody speaks of wanting to reduce pollution but nobody wants to pay for that,” Meazza said in an interview at the company's booth at CosmoProf Asia, held Nov. 13-15. “Our customers continue to consider plastics as something that causes pollution.”
Cosmetics companies are interested in the bottle but skeptical it can biodegrade, and they balk at the higher price for bio-based plastic, he said: “The market is not easy.”
The halls of CosmoProf, which says it's the second-largest beauty products show in the world with more than 2,000 exhibiting companies and 50,000 visitors, were full of messages from brands touting how organic and natural their products were.
But among the hundreds of contract manufacturing companies in the packaging portion of the show, generally speaking, the message was that all of the environmental talk was not taking root in the choices about plastic packaging.
Davide di Cosola, export director with Italian cosmetics packaging firm Eurovetrocap srl, said his company has been offering a line of 100 percent recycled content HDPE bottles for one year. Like Capardoni, they've not had any orders.
“There is no sincerity for this,” di Cosola said, when asked about eco-packaging. “There is no demand for the product.”
The recycled content bottle is more expensive and it's hard for the Milan-based company to find good quality recycled material, he said.
Others made similar points.
“It's not that big of a deal for our customers,” said Ellis Rudman, vice president of operations for Arrowpak, Inc., in Richmond Hill, N.Y. “We have some customers coming to us asking about sustainability. It's been a point of interest but not a point of concentration for our customers.”
Arrowpak, which is part of Italian packaging company Baralan SpA, investigated using recycled content in its plastic containers but found it was more expensive, he said.
Other plastic packaging companies, however, were more hopeful.
J.K. Hwang, president of Seoul-based F.S. Korea Industries Inc., said it takes time for new packaging to be accepted.
F.S., which has 30 molding machines and specializes in beauty industry products, developed a wood-plastic composite cosmetics bottle in 2010. It's not gained any commercial success but Hwang said it still needs two years of testing with brand companies who want to see how it reacts with their cosmetics, he said.
Hwang admits that green packaging is sometimes not as attractive, a potential deal-killer in an industry where appearance and the ability to stand out on the shelf are key.
But he said he's willing to be patient with his WPC packaging, and compared the situation to the growing use of the product certification standards of the Forest Stewardship Council: “When we started with FSC, at the time, nobody knew what it was, but now you see FSC on everything.”
Both Hwang and Hair O'right's Ko said they believe consumer demand will over time tilt toward eco-products.
Ko said climate change and the thousands killed by recent disasters like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines will lead to more awareness and more demand for carbon-friendlier products and packaging.
He said Hair O'right uses only natural ingredients. It claims it was the first shampoo in the world to be certified as carbon-neutral, and it doesn't use PVC or metalize its plastic containers to give them a shiny appearance, a common practice in cosmetics.
It uses only solar and wind power in its manufacturing, he said, and built a new headquarters last year for its 170 employees according to green building standards in Taiwan.
The PLA bottle, which has a seed for a Taiwanese Acacia plant embedded inside, won a “best of the best” award from the German reddot design organization this year. The Acacia seed can sprout into a tree after the bottle is buried and biodegrades, the company claims.
Ko also points to a more personal reason for his interest in environmental health — his parents passed away from kidney disease and cancer the same year he started the company.
But apart from the personal, Ko said he believes the company's focus will resonate with more and more consumers: “By 2020, if your products don't change, you'll be out of business.”