I've written about homes and housekeeping for my entire career, and I've seen cleaning products and trends come and go with the seasons. But the latest trend in home care is one I hope will be more than just a passing phase. Over the last two years, I've watched an increasing number of powdered and minimally packaged cleaning products come to market.
There's no catch-all phrase to describe this new category — not all are 100% plastic-free, not all are zero-waste, but they all feature powdered or dry tablet formulations and an overall theme of less waste. These new products have less packaging, and because they come in powdered and tablet forms, their manufacturers use less fuel to ship them and produce less emissions, as a result. These low-waste products also often have fewer potentially toxic chemicals in their minimalist ingredients list, aka a win-win for us consumers.
Joe Giallanella, the team lead for Seventh Generation's Growth Incubator, says it's the consumer driving this trend towards powdered formulations and away from plastic packaging. "We were motivated by a 2020 study that showed that one in three consumers were shopping the aisles of their grocery stores hoping to buy the products that they know in something other than single-use plastics," he says. The company, which is known for its sustainable bonafides, first tested the market with a small launch of powdered Zero Plastic products through Grove Co. in 2020. Next month, the line will get a full roll-out in grocery stores and big-box stores like Target. Smaller brands like Blueland, Branch Basics, and Meliora have all debuted lower-waste powder-based cleaning products, as well. Here's what's driving this trend and what you need to know shopping for low-waste products:
How powders became passé
Powdered cleaning products and detergents were popular for most of the 20th century, but starting in the 1980s liquids began to take hold of the market, and along with this shift came a transition from cardboard boxes to single-use plastic bottles. Consumers like that liquid detergents, dishwasher soap, and other cleansers were easier to dispense, plus they dissolved more readily in cooler water — and the companies making them could charge a premium for this convenience, giving them incentive to push the liquid market.
Our love of liquids contributes to the single-use plastic crisis
By now, you've probably heard about the many problems with single-use plastics, including the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean. But when it comes to cleaning, it can be hard to kick the single-use plastic habit. "When I started the Sustainability Concierge in 2017, there were no good low-waste, non-toxic cleaning products to recommend to my clients, so I told everyone to clean with castile soap, baking soda, and vinegar," says Friday Aplaski, a consultant who helps homeowners green their homes in the Bay Area. "However, today brands are slowly joining the zero-waste movement."
They're not your grandma's powders
Of course, consumers seeking to lessen their plastic consumption could seek out old-school powdered cleansers (and I for one still love the original, eco-friendly Bon Ami Powder Cleanser), but these products are increasingly hard to find in the U.S. Additionally, many of the zero-waste-aspiring customers are also skeptical of the long ingredients list on some traditional cleansers. "Consumers want easy, convenient, and uncomplicated cleaning solutions. Currently, sustainability is at the forefront, and consumers want to avoid plastics, but more and more people are asking for non-toxic products too," says Branch Basics co-founder Marilee Nelson.
The pros and cons of tablets vs. powders
Different brands have taken different approaches to creating powdered formulations. Blueland's founder Sarah Paiji Yoo, opted for powdered tablets for her start-up because she saw that it was a sustainable and customer-friendly option. "The dry tablet form factor enables more sustainable packaging options, like compostable paper, as opposed to non-recyclable plastic pouches and cartridges or resource-intensive and heavy glass," Paiji says. "It also delivers an incredible and simple customer experience with no messy pouring or powder." Seventh Generation has opted for loose powders for its new line, preferring to give the consumer the ability to dose the product and avoiding the issue of tablets that get crushed in transit.
The problem with plastic films
One solution to the problem of crumbling tablets is to encase the cleanser in a dissolvable plastic film, an option popular for dishwasher soap and laundry detergents. However, "Even though the film is said to be soluble in water, the plastic film is not totally biodegradable," cautions Branch Basics's Nelson. "It contaminates our water systems and enters the food chain." Indeed, writing for Plastics Ocean International, Dr. Charlie Rolsky, the organization's director of science explains, "Dissolve does not mean disappear. Salt is technically soluble in water, but if you pour a bunch of salt in a glass of water, you very much taste it. It's still there," and studies suggest those plastic films are still very much in our water system, and we lack a complete understanding of the subsequent consequences of its presence.
That pesky packaging!
Even with the plastic-free powder or tablet formation, brands still need to get their product to the consumer in something. Branch Basics has stuck with a plastic pouch for its new dishwasher tablets (much to zero-waste advocates like Aplaski's chagrin), Seventh Generation wanted to be truly plastic-free for its new line, so they opted for steel containers. "One reason we chose the material was because it has a better chance of being recycled and re-entering the recycling stream," says Giallanella. "You can recycle this steel an infinite amount of times without the metal losing its strength over time." Blueland will sell you a metal container for its tablets too, but they'll ship your refill in a "compostable'' bag, but . . . it's only compostable in a commercial-scale composting facility, not a home bin. Meliora recently rejiggered their packaging to be 100% paper.
The truly zero-waste future
Giallanella concedes that Seventh Generation's powdered Zero Plastic line and its competitors are just a step towards a truly zero-waste cleaning products market. "This is the journey that we're on; we recognize that in order to make a zero-plastic line and lessen the environmental impact as much as we want to, it's going to require an option for refills." He hopes that one day people will be able to go to their grocery store and refill their canisters with cleansers right there. For now, Giallanella and the other experts I spoke to point out that any option that reduces the number of single-use plastics and shipping fuel you use is a good one. As Anne-Marie Bonneau, aka "The Zero Waste Chef," famously tweeted: We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly. So, if you're looking for a way to reduce your cleaning-related waste, give powdered formulations a try!