Updated: May 27
For anyone who is at all curious about how our bar soaps ended up in milk cartons...
It was a practical question of packaging
How do we send the soaps to our buyers?
We started our journey of cold process soap to advocate the swap out of single-use shower gel bottles, so naturally, we do not want our buyers to have to deal with single-use packaging when they buy my.naked.bar soaps.
However, the bars do need to be protected on their journey to the buyers and as brands, we have the responsibility too to let buyers know what ingredients their bar of soap contains and how to care for their soaps. It seems an impossible task to achieve these with zero packaging.
At the beginning, we explored multiple options – reusable silicone tea bags, Kraft boxes, cotton Furoshiki but we couldn’t settle on any one of them.
We had an adrenalin rush when we initially chanced upon the colourful reusable silicone tea bags thinking buyers wouldn’t throw them out and can reuse them…but it didn’t take long for that hope bubble to burst as we realise if buyers were to buy a bar every month or two, they will end up with 6-12 tea bags in a year when they really only need one, assuming they don’t already own one.
Similarly, most people would not know what to do with the mini Furoshiki cloth if we had chosen to wrap our bars with them. A single cotton tee uses water that can feed a person for 2.5 years so that mere thought of the amount of waste we would have generated made us shudder.
Kraft boxes seem to be the ideal choice especially since they have become the icon synonymous with being ecofriendly these days. However, just like cotton tote bags which have to be used 7,100 times to have less impact than a regular disposable plastic bag, the paper Kraft boxes, if we consider the impact of deforestation and transportation (paper is much heavier than plastic) may not necessarily be a better choice too.
And being an unrepentant hoarder who has a problem throwing out things that are still in good condition, I didn’t want others like me to be stuck with many boxes that they hope may “one day” come to good use.
To be honest, we were a little deflated at that point. Cos we’d never want to promote our soap as an environmentally friendly swap only to create as much, or worse, more waste than the current option of bottled shower gels. Does that mean we have to drop the idea altogether?
How did our soaps end up in a milk carton?
Thanks to that bit of stubbornness in me, I didn't give up. I believed there HAS to be a solution. What can we use to protect the soaps yet not need new resources nor create additional waste stream?
Then one day, I had my lightbulb moment.
The first loaf of soap I ever made was using a milk carton as a soap mold and that image suddenly came to mind. I can still remember that vivid moment when I sprung up from my chair and ran to grab a milk carton from the fridge to see if my soap could fit in.
It was a PERFECT match.
I literally yelped for joy thinking of all the milk cartons I can give a second life to. (yes, I get super excited at small wins…. especially when I can find a good match between supply and demand…. not sure if anyone else in the world understands this.)
But how can I then list all the ingredients of each bar?
Luckily QR code has taken off in recent years and most people are familiar with it, so I decided to put all the necessary information online so buyers can self-serve should they choose to learn more about the ingredients, care instruction or more about my naked bar.
And so, a twine and a tag, that’s all that wraps around our bars.
Done deal? Not quite. When the realities set in, we thought....how on earth are we going to drink so much milk to have enough cartons on standby to send out the soaps?
It started off with a kind neighbour who got to know what we are doing and she started collecting the cartons and dropping them off to us.
After sharing our story on zerowaste group on Facebook, we found more “friends” including a homebaker who identifies with our cause. Then we chanced upon package pals and listed our requirements on their resource sheet. From then on, we’ve received contributions from countless kind individuals to whom we are extremely grateful.
Over time we became conscious of the potential carbon footprints both our contributors and us incur while we gather these cartons. To minimise overall carbon footprint, we listed guidelines for collection to ensure we only receive contributions from contributors who stay or travel near and from those who are able to batch the carton contributions.
Evolution of our milk carton packaging
Our packaging started off honestly looking rather awkward. With every different sized order, we racked our brains to cut up the cartons to fit the different configuration of soaps and accessories. To us, the first priority is protecting the soaps, while aesthetic was secondary. So sometimes the boxes were mismatched. But each of our buyers had embraced them fully, despite some being shocked initially.
Our "awkward" packaging at the beginning
Honestly it wasn’t very ‘sustainable’ as sometimes an order can take me half an hour to fully pack. But I got better as I cut up more cartons. Over time, I found new ways to optimize the way I cut the cartons and pack so the soaps get better protected. I also got more creative in (almost) using up every part of the cartons as fillers. Check out how our cartons evolved from unmatched cartons (above) to “designer” carton bags and to soap dish for our kitchen block
Optimised packaging to better protect soaps and look more presentable.
By doing so, can we really save Semakau? Sadly no. It's more to turn heads.
Simply reducing single-use plastic shower gel bottles will not get us anywhere near saving our one and only landfill. But we believe by going against the norm to ship our soap bars in milk cartons, it has a higher chance of starting conversations for our climate. By showing that even a common everyday item can be given a second life and used to reduce waste, we hope it can inspire more people outside the zero waste community to start adopting a less waste mindset.
However, by choosing to do so, it adds several levels of complexity in operations. The workload is increased multiple fold vs. having a ready printed box where we can just slot the bar in.
We also have to accept that we will turn away many potential buyers who cannot accept our upcycled packaging, especially for gifting. Compared to Day 1 when we first started, the acceptance level has definitely gone up a few notch, with more people even outside the zero waste community embracing our non mainstream practices. We are also heartened to see so many more brands adopting reused / upcycled packaging. With more voices, we have a stronger impact.
We haven’t counted how many cartons we’ve given a second life to, but each one we cut up gives us joy. And it’s even more heartening to know that these cartons sometimes get a third life when buyers who are fellow zero-wasters reuse them again to collect wet trash.
As consumers ourselves, we are attracted naturally to beautiful packaging which brings about a certain level of premium value to the products they contain. Which is why we appreciate even more the support of our regular buyers. It would have been difficult to walk this path not trodden alone without these "friends" along the journey. For that, thank you to each and everyone of you yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Let's do it for our planet and for our children.
Before you leave, here's a fun video on the evolution of our cartons. Enjoy!