Tork - squaring the circle

27th of September 2019
Tork - squaring the circle

Recycling our used hand towels should be a no-brainer in these environmentally-aware times. Yet the first ever hand towel recycling service only recently emerged. Service provider Essity talks about the challenges and the potential of Tork PaperCircle.

As a society we are becoming increasingly resistant to throwing things away when a more sustainable option is open to us. Reusing, repurposing and recycling are all among the new, highly positive terms that have entered our vocabulary as we move further and further away from yesterday’s ‘disposable society’ model.

Yet there are countless disposable products that we still regard as essential to our everyday life. How would we manage without tissues or toilet paper, for example? Also, no-one could deny the convenience of disposable nappies or kitchen towels. And in specialist environments such as the healthcare sector, single-use items such as syringes and gloves are quite literally a life-saver.

Meanwhile in the public washroom, paper hand towels have been a common hand drying solution for decades because the very fact they are thrown away after use makes them more hygienic than textile alternatives.

But with the issue of sustainability becoming increasingly prominent in many companies’ business models there has been a growing resistance to adding to the waste burden in this way. The time was clearly ripe for a recycling solution.

Customer demand

In fact it was customer demand that led Tork manufacturer Essity to pioneer its new hand towel recycling service, Tork PaperCircle. This takes away customers’ used towels and recycles them, turning them into products such as toilet paper and couch rolls.

Tork PaperCircle enables businesses to “go circular” by closing the loop and providing a sustainable solution to a niggling problem, according to Essity. And the company believes that its solution is also a world first.

However, the service was four years in development. So why has this seemingly obvious solution been such a long time coming? “When launching a service rather than a product you need to be cautious,” explains Essity’s global brand innovation manager Asa Degerman. “So we had to take it step by step.”

Hurdles to overcome

The fact the original idea came from a customer alerted the company to the fact there was a clear demand for such a scheme. But Essity needed to consider a number of issues and overcome a series of hurdles before reaching the launch stage of Tork PaperCircle.

For example, where would the towels be recycled? How far would they have to travel, and how would this impact on the sustainability of the operation? And how many customers would be required to make the scheme viable?

Another challenge lay in convincing customers to sign up to the scheme in the first place. After all, why should they care about what happened to their used hand towels once they left their premises? And then there was the issue of persuading washroom users to recycle their towels rather than simply throwing them away in the bin as they had always done.

When Essity embarked on the project it began by approaching a number of companies and asking to set up pilot schemes at their premises. These customers were chosen carefully since in order to be viable, the towels needed to be recycled close to where they were used. So pilot projects were set up at locations close to Essity mills in Germany and the Netherlands.

Persuading potential customers that a hand towel recycling service might benefit them was not a problem as it turned out, says Degerman. “There has been a general shift towards this type of sustainable thinking,” she said. “But in any case, Tork PaperCircle offers key benefits for the customer. For example, it can help them to cut the carbon footprint of their hand towels by 40 per cent. This helps them to meet their sustainability targets while making an important statement to both employees and visitors.

“Using Tork PaperCircle also allows them to draw attention to their own sustainability via creative communication in the washroom. This then builds awareness and helps to positively enhance their brand.”

The pilot schemes proved successful and customers include large international airports both in Germany and the Netherlands, plus one of the world’s largest professional service companies.

The second potential sticking point - persuading washroom users to recycle their hand towels instead of throwing them away - was a major issue, according to Degerman. The Tork PaperCircle concept incorporates bespoke hand towel recycling bins that are placed in prominent locations in the washrooms. But how can one persuade washroom visitors to use them?

“It is a big challenge to ensure people don’t simply throw their towels away or put their general waste in the hand towel recycling bin,” said Degerman. “The content of these recycling bins needs to consist of 98 per cent pure paper towels in order to achieve the most efficient result at the mill.”

Clear signage

Essity has overcome this issue by using clear signage to remind people of the need to use the hand towel recycling bins. The company works with ‘nudging experts’ to help change people’s behaviour and has come up with a nudging concept called “Everything in its right place”.

Clear blue signs direct visitors to the water supply, the soap – even the toilet itself. Signs on the back of cubicle doors then introduce visitors to the fact that hand towels are recycled in this facility.
The paper towel recycling bin is highlighted by another blue sign while the bin for general refuse is marked with a contrasting yellow sign.

The fact the blue signs outnumber the yellow signs four to one means the yellow sign inevitably draws more attention.

“In a public washroom you have one chance to get it right and persuade people to dispose of their towels in the dedicated hand towel bin,” said Degerman. “Most people are on autopilot when they visit a washroom, so we use naïve messages to show them the most obvious things they need to do and where to do them. This draws attention to actions that are otherwise performed unconsciously.”

Nudging system

This gentle ‘nudging’ system seems to be working. “In environments such as airports we are achieving recycling rates of around 97 per cent,” said Degerman. “And in offices – which receive high numbers of recurring traffic – we are hitting our 98 per cent target.”

Tork PaperCircle is now successfully up and running in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. “We are also seeing a strong interest and demand from other potential customers,” said Dagerman. “We have been running more pilot schemes and scaling it up during 2019.”

Since towels need to be recycled close to the customer’s premises in order to be sustainable, only those customers situated near to Essity’s mills are able to join the scheme. But how close they need to be will change as the scheme becomes more successful.

“At the moment, Tork PaperCircle customers all have to be situated within a 500 km radius of one of our mills to make the scheme viable but the more customers join up, the further away from our mills they can be,” said Dagerman.

Essity believes that the service will gather momentum over the coming years as support from customers, end users and the public continues to grow.

“People are ready for a hand towel recycling scheme,” said Degerman. “We are discovering that an increasing number of environments such as large offices, universities and similar facilities have the ambition to improve their sustainability. They want to be at the forefront in terms of recycling and are really keen to sign up.

“We will continue to work in close collaboration with our partners and key stakeholders, and we believe the potential is huge. Eventually we hope to be able to offer this service outside of Europe
as well.”


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