Inside the lab: rationalising, not rationing!

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Creating perfumes involves large volumes of disposable products, from glassware, plastic pipettes and bags to paper, gloves and ingredients. This aspect of the development process, unlike many others, is often overlooked. It does, however, reflect a not insignificant reality that is part of any perfume’s overall footprint. At a time when every area is concerned by sustainability issues, what steps are creation houses taking to cut the amount of waste generated in their laboratories? Let’s take a quick look at some of the best ideas.

Imagine a perfume under development with a formula involving some 50 ingredients: to weigh the formula you need almost the same number of plastic pipettes for each trial. Each will be sampled in a 15-ml bottle, in a process repeated six to eight times, at least, for all the in-house creative team and the client. Bottles for the client are placed in a plastic sachet and transported in a thick paper bag by a courier, often in a hurry. If the number of trials (usually in the low hundreds) rises to as many as 5,000, which can happen for major launches, over three tonnes of waste are generated. Which is how much a hippopotamus weighs! It is perfectly understandable that these days the large perfume companies prefer to talk about the sustainable sourcing of their ingredients rather than focusing on the number of modifications made (and the quantity of waste they generate). Times have changed…

Multiplying trials

Quality control, safety standards, health protection and, of course, the faster pace of weighing have all served to increase the number of disposable products used. “A lab assistant might weigh between 800 and 1,000 ingredients a day,” points out Gwladys Jubi, head of the fine fragrance creation laboratory at Mane. The system of competition between composition houses drives them to increase the number of trials, and therefore the amount of waste. Sadly, the pandemic has also exacerbated this trend: samples that could no longer be shared by a team have had to be sent out to their various home-working locations. This stands in direct opposition to all the strategic efforts made to embed sustainability into laboratory practices. “Jean Mane, our CEO, is personally involved during meetings of the in-house social and economic committee where ideas about how to improve our environmental impact and colleagues’ working conditions are discussed,” says Gwladys Jubi. A philosophy reflected in the Green Motion index that “is celebrating its 11th anniversary and is a perfect illustration of the role Mane has adopted in terms of sustainability,” adds Loic Bleuez, head of innovation and development at Mane. At IFF, “it’s part of corporate culture at a company whose motto is ‘We apply science and creativity for a better world’, so we have to be coherent in everything we do,” points out Emilie Baude, technical operations director. A Green Team of volunteers has been set up to seek out and implement everybody’s best ideas. And these new ideas are needed now, because the issue is a matter of urgency! “The profession has worked in the same way for the past 50 years, using a range of single-use products: pipettes and, particularly, pumps, which are very polluting. We need to speed up the rate of transition. This is the mindset behind our Pathways to Positive sustainability programme, which aims to create value that can be shared by all our stakeholders,” explains Odile Drag-Pelissier, senior vice-president for creation & development at Firmenich. The company has also rolled out a new global strategy called Lab 4.0, headed up by Sylvie Breton, vice-president for global perfumery laboratory services. The goal is to give a new dimension to the 35 laboratories and 11 creative centres around the world by adopting modern technologies: robotisation, digitisation and artificial intelligence, lean processes[1]A management method that optimises long-term processes by increasing autonomy, responsibility and fluidity, seeking to eliminate waste, overproduction and lost time. and, of course, incorporating sustainability. 

A Paris-based laboratory generates between one and two tonnes of waste every month, equivalent to between three and six horses. Dealing with this waste is a real logistical and ecological challenge. “We operate a very strict waste-sorting system according to the type of material (glass, aluminium or plastic) and the degree of dirtiness (empty glass, dirty glass, full glass, etc.). If they contain CMR substances[2]Carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction then the products are stored separately,” explains Gwladys Jubi. Glass is melted down and other waste is generally incinerated to recover combustion energy by Suez or Triadis, companies that specialize in waste processing. So, let’s put on our gloves and take a closer look at what’s in the waste bins.

Plastic: not so fantastic

Every manually weighed ingredient requires a single-use plastic pipette. This “makes very accurate weighing possible, 0.04g or 0.02g. Sadly, these samples cannot be stored as the residual ingredient can oxidise very rapidly and lose its olfactory properties,” Gwladys Jubi reminds us. “A year ago the pandemic created a shortage of plastic and we had trouble resupplying. This led us to think about ways of rationing our use of plastic, such as drop measuring [3]A technique where the liquid is dispensed drop by drop onto a blotter. But when did pipettes start invading laboratories? “Labs and production sites have been using more and more of them as companies have moved to ISO 14001 certification[4]A standard that sets out a series of requirements that an organisation’s environmental management system has to meet in order to gain certification which, ironically enough, is supposed to protect the environment,” explains Alain Joncheray, technical director at Azur Fragrances. “Using them is easier. Back in the day, we used to drop weigh, with a spatula for example, which requires a certain amount of skill, and operators had a better understanding of their product and its viscosity.” 

Firmenich is committed to “100% fully recyclable or reusable plastics by 2025.” To reach its goal the company has rolled out a global strategy for all perfumery laboratories, headed by Sylvie Breton. She describes its approach: “For 2021, the first year, by eliminating single-use spatulas, weighing pans and beakers made from virgin plastic, we cut our virgin plastic waste by nine tonnes out of the annual total of 38 tonnes generated by all our perfumery laboratories worldwide. Based on an idea from Latin America, we are now working on reducing the use of single-use plastic pipettes in creation laboratories by packaging perfume ingredients in dropper bottles.” While bottles with built-in droppers appear to be used fairly widely in small independent laboratories, larger companies seem, amazingly, to hardly use them, if at all. “Another pillar of our strategy focuses on packaging and we are following a global programme to cut the amount we use. This includes introducing reuse processes and replacing items made from virgin plastic with sustainable solutions such as bottles with a neutral olfactory profile made from recovered post-consumer waste. These new products must first be approved by in-depth testing for compatibility and leak resistance based on carefully defined protocols,” says Sylvie Breton. IFF has chosen to tackle the issue of the plastic bags samples are packaged in: “we use around 450 of them a day!” explains Evelyne da Silva, creative director of fine fragrances at IFF. “An idea from our Green Team was to make bags out of recycled cotton and transport samples in recycled cardboard. And the couriers are using electric vehicles.” The company is also testing bags made from compostable biomaterials.

Lighter samples

While it is difficult to reduce the number of samples, it is easier to limit their volumes: switching from 15 to 5 ml, without a pump, is a solution proposed by Firmenich and IFF. A solution that saves on raw materials, alcohol and glassware. “Clients are very happy with this choice, because they don’t have enough space either and don’t always have arrangements in place for recycling samples – they give them back to us via the sales people,” says Evelyne Da Silva. “We’re currently looking at using lighter-weight glass, and pumps made from metal rather than plastic. We used to focus on improving performance and aesthetics, but we have now added an additional factor: the environment.”

The introduction of robots has resulted in savings of both glass and pipettes. Robots are currently responsible for weighing almost half of a formula, with the rest measured manually. “We now use stainless steel rather than glass pots on the weighing robots: they are washable and provide a better degree of olfactory neutrality,” explains Sylvie Breton. And it may well be possible in the future to install the robot directly at the client’s site with a formula order guided by the composition houses, which, as Firmenich sees it, would save on travel and time.

Storage capacity also plays a key role in limiting waste: “perfumers generally keep their trials for a year and their collections of perfumes, notes and completed accords for two years, ready to be used in new projects. If the laboratory moves to new premises in the future, larger storage capacity will allow us to keep more items and therefore save on glass and ingredients,” says Gwladys Jubi. 
Once the fragrance is weighed and added to alcohol, it’s time to smell it! One to two million blotters are used every year in each laboratory. And it is difficult to do without them: cellulose paper is a perfumer’s number one tool, and its quality and quantity play an important part in ensuring that perfumers can assess olfactory qualities effectively. Paperless solutions apply more to document digitisation: “formulas are sometimes printed out so that perfumers can note by hand the quantities of ingredients that need weighing in line with the quantity of the product needed,” says Gwladys Jubi. But formulation software is changing things. “Lab assistants have all the data on screen, they scan the ingredient and use connected scales, so that only the label needs printing,” notes Sylvie Breton.

Logistics and supplies

The ingredients used in formulas are, unfortunately, perishable. This means that quality control is crucial in checking that best-before dates are strictly observed. Some materials cannot be kept for longer than three months. Citrus essences, for instance, quickly become oxidised if they are not kept chilled. “It’s possible to dilute certain fragile products in alcohol, like Strawberry furanone[5]A gourmand fruity note that smells of strawberry, so you can retain its organoleptic properties,” explains Gwladys Jubi. This is another area where composition houses rely on the benefits of digitisation, using it to tighten up their stock management practices and cut the environmental impact. “Digital technologies mean we can analyse actual use and optimise safety stock and order levels to avoid overstocking and throwing away materials that have reached their expiry date,” explains Sylvie Breton.

Stock management is inextricably linked to logistics between the lab and the factory that produces and stores ingredients: ordering less and more regularly involves careful management of transport. IFF is working on creating shared platforms for storing accessories and packaging, and rationalising supplies per country rather than sending everything through the parent factory. 

In the old days, raw materials to discard used to be stored together in a container and formed a sort of blend called “mille-fleurs”, that could be sold on the far-off markets of Africa. “With today’s focus on traceability, selling a product with unknown composition is no longer possible,” confirms Emilie Baude. The concept has however been taken in a new direction at Azur Fragrances: “an artist in residence loved the idea of a random creation, almost like a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s Belle Haleine. Now that’s real upcycling!” laughs Alain Joncheray. The issue is not just with ingredients. Wastage also applies to solvents, widely used by perfumers to dilute their formulas and adjust the cost to meet clients’ pricing requirements: “they don’t always know how to dissolve in anything other than dipropylene glycol; however, creating a less-diluted product would benefit everyone, as there would be less to transport, less greenhouse gas, less packaging and lower costs.”

Create less but better 

Would the client notice a 0.01% variation in an ingredient used as part of a new trial? “The pandemic showed us that we could work in different ways, with a more controlled creative process,” notes Evelyne da Silva. “Working from home gave perfumers more time for thinking, and therefore for optimising, as well as for following notes and proposing the ‘right mod’ [modification to a trial].” Emilie Baude adds that “the lack of resources at the laboratory also forced us to adapt to a different rhythm. Let’s hope that these good practices won’t be forgotten in the future.”

Firmenich is also turning to data to optimise the number of trials: “we can now forecast a huge range of factors; by modelling formulas, we can anticipate whether or not a given trial will be successful, which means we avoid generating vast amounts of waste as well as save time, particularly in the final technical optimisation phase,” points out Odile Drag-Pelissier. “The whole creative process needs to be rethought from start to finish,” concludes Alain Joncheray. “Before the advent of digital, we took fewer photos but thought more about framing and light. Taking lots of indiscriminate shots was never the guarantee of a good picture!”

Another source of invisible but significant pollution is the brands themselves, which sometimes “ask for technical documents with every trial, representing a lot of major work ‘just in case’ the trial is selected,” regrets Alain Joncheray. “In the meantime, since information is not always centralised, the documents are saved not just once but several times over, once for every person in the department. That’s a lot of server use!” And the perfumers? “It’s also important to clear out your directories by deleting formulas that are no longer in use, and trials that haven’t been selected as they weren’t effective enough. Each year we need to update everything to meet the latest standards, which used to take a week between Christmas and the New Year, but now takes much longer as there are too many formulas.”

Ecology is often associated with making savings, and good practices are emerging thanks to the goodwill of each individual as well as impetus from management. “We need to instil good habits in our teams and encourage them to behave as though they were paying the bills themselves: for example, by turning off a hot plate and the lights when leaving the office; there’s no reason to behave any differently from at home,” says Gwladys Jubi. Small changes that show how important the subject is, even if they remain symbolic: at IFF, each time the company wins a project, a tree is planted near Rambouillet, in the Paris area. Good intentions, storage capacity, robotisation and digitisation are all playing their part in combating waste. A drop in the ocean, but vital to stemming the tidal wave of plastic.



1 A management method that optimises long-term processes by increasing autonomy, responsibility and fluidity, seeking to eliminate waste, overproduction and lost time.
2 Carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction
3 A technique where the liquid is dispensed drop by drop onto a blotter
4 A standard that sets out a series of requirements that an organisation’s environmental management system has to meet in order to gain certification
5 A gourmand fruity note that smells of strawberry

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