How the Beauty Industry Is Confronting Its Relationship With Waste

Photo: Getty Images/ Cavan Images
As a beauty editor, I'm sent probably around 10 skin-care and makeup products a day, and opening them up never fails to remind me of playing with nesting dolls. Each product comes in a jar or bottle or tub, which is typically in some sort of product box, which is then nestled inside of a larger box that may or may not be packed with Styrofoam fillers, scrunched-up cardboard pieces, or tissue paper. Which all goes to say that, for the sake of safely transporting one relatively small beauty product, a lot of waste is produced.

That's just the beginning of it, though. Beauty products themselves often need to be packaged within containers that are made up of a number of different materials, including plastic, glass, recycled plastic, and aluminum. The use of mixed materials for a single item makes recycling complicated, and despite our best efforts to recycle them, many of those materials can wind up in landfills.

In terms of being a source of waste in the world, beauty products are not the biggest culprit: bottled and packaged beverages and food are, according to Shane Wolf, founder of sustainable beauty brand Seed Phytonutrients; however, they still pose a significant—and unique—problem. "Beauty products create less waste in volume [than the food and beverage industry], but our plastics challenge is more complex because we tend to use mixed material and less frequently use post-consumer recycled materials. More often, we create materials, which means there's no chance that a jar with metalized print or graphics will ever be recycled," he says.

This is precisely why you're increasingly seeing more beauty brands explore ways to make their packaging more eco-friendly and sustainable. While the solutions are becoming more and more innovative, they have to be, in many ways, because plastic takes roughly 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill, and we can't just keep creating more of it without confronting where it goes once we're done.

What's the deal with plastic and other 'recyclable' materials, anyways?

Here's what actually happens when you toss your plastic (and other recyclable materials) into the recycling bin: "Once you put a material in the blue bin, it's collected by the waste collector of your city, which is a private entity, and taken to a material recovery facility that sorts all wastes into their right categories," says Sarah Teeter, global project manager of TerraCycle, a recycling company that handles hard-to-recycle waste.

Now, just because you see a recycle symbol on something doesn't necessarily mean that it gets could (and often does) wind up at the dump instead. "If a product is made out of a lot of different materials, it's hard and costly to separate them," Teeter explains. It really all comes down to your local municipal facility, because this specifically determines where materials wind up. "It's about whether your material recovery facility has the capability to sort them out and if they have an end market [for the materials]," says Teeter. "Things that are deemed recyclable are recyclable because of the economics of it."

"Things that are deemed recyclable are recyclable because of the economics of it." —Sarah Teeter

So, given that we know there's a recycling problem, what are the best materials you can buy when you look for beauty products at the store?

Paper: "When you look at materials, the most sustainable is paper or paper wood products," says Wolf. "So wood and bamboo paper are the most sustainable and have a 90 percent chance of being recycled [when separated from trash], and they are grown almost entirely by sustainable methods by law. Even if these materials aren't recycled, they come from the earth and so they return to the earth when they degrade." FWIW: By volume, paper takes up the most space in landfills, and though it does degrade, it takes two to six weeks to do so, plus it's up for debate on whether products degrade one they're in a landfill because there's just so. much. trash. and not enough dirt for biodegradation to take place.

Glass: Okay, okay, if plastic is a problem, then why not just use glass? It's infinitely recyclable, after all, right? In theory, sure, but in practice, Wolf says that's not what's happening, and you have to think of the other types of problems being created. For one, because glass is heavy, it produces carbon pollution. "The CO2 emissions from shipping heavy glass is a bit high, and there's very limited recycling of glass in the U. S. today," he says. "It's done a bit more in western Europe, but it doesn't exist in the U.S. because the cost equation just isn't there." It's estimated by the Glass Packaging Institute that only one-third of glass is recycled.

Metal and aluminum: "[Aside from paper,] aluminum is the next most frequently recycled material in the United States," says Wolf. However, when it comes to the beauty industry, metal and aluminum are frequently used to package things like aerosol hairspray, which have to be totally emptied to be recycled.

Plastics: There are two types of plastics to be aware of: virgin plastics and post-consumer recycled plastics, which are the most common material for beauty products, according to Wolf.  "Virgin plastic means the plastic has been made from scratch, so resources like oil had to be harvested from the earth and that polymer had to be created," says Teeter. Post-consumer recycled plastic, though, is "made with recycled content, so the footprint becomes significantly better because it's using material that was already in circulation instead of making new, virgin plastic," she says.

What's the dilemma with beauty product packaging?

While many of the food products that we buy up in the grocery store are dry goods, flip most any beauty label over and the first ingredient you'll see that was used is: water. Because of this, not only is it important for preservatives to be used, but it's also key that the materials they're stored in keep them from turning into a verifiable petri dish. "[Beauty products] have unique requirements around compatibility with materials," explains Wolf. "Moisture barriers are important because beauty products are largely water-based, and that's where bacteria can grow. For product and consumer safety, there are some specificities around beauty that, in some ways, makes it more difficult for us than it'd be for a dry good, for example."

For starters, the use of easily recyclable materials such as paper—which are many times tapped in the food industry—are out, because water and paper don't mix. (That said, Seed Phytonutrients has found a way to shell a 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic liner within post-consumer recycled paper to use 70 percent less plastic.) And what's more, beyond creating a soggy container, the interaction between the formula and the container it's in need to be factored in. Take pure essential oils, for instance, which have been known to deteriorate the plastics that they're stored in. "We're more limited, and require more effort to check the material we're moving to make sure it's compatible with the formulas," he says.

While glass is a usable solution, it costs more to work with as noted, both because of the price of the raw materials and the added weight when shipping. Plus, to make the products shelf stable, you'll often notice that some plastic is often needed anyways to make the product viable for a long shelf life. "Even if you use glass with a metal cap, our experience is that you still need a plastic seal between the metal cap and the glass to create that air-tight seal," says Tara Pelletier, co-founder of beauty brand Meow Meow Tweet.

What are beauty brands doing to be more sustainable?

These days, brands are using a lot of post-consumer recycled plastic, which is a step in the right direction. "Using post-consumer recycled material is a really good thing," says Shane. "It's stopping us from producing anymore virgin materials from fossil fuel."

Post-consumer recycled plastics are being tapped at record rates by skin-care companies, including Love Beauty and Planet, Aveda, Herbal Essences, Own Beauty, and tons (and tons) more. "This is absolutely a great thing when brands use recycled content—it's fueling recycling in the first place," says Teeter. And then there are brands like Seed Phytonutrients, which has been a true pioneer in terms of real sustainability with its innovative cardboard shell packaging... and the brand isn't stopping there. "I'm looking to work with brilliant people in packaging to create an organic alternative to plastic, and I will not stop improving until ultimately I've found a full replacement of fossil fuel-based plastic," Wolf says. Then brands like Ethique are eliminating plastic waste all together by formulating every skin-care and hair-care product, for that matter, into a waterless bar form so that they're simply wrapped in paper packaging before being shipped. FWIW: Love Beauty and Planet have also launched bars like these that can be found at your local drugstore.

Vegan brand Meow Meow Tweet is also in onto the cardboard use—their stick deodorants use zero plastic whatsoever. They're also investing in a bulk refill system, which allows their customers to buy refillable skin-care products that don't require any additional plastic to be utilized. "You could use one plastic pump for a year instead of, say, six," says Pelletier. "We actually have been really excited about the idea of creating bulk options and figuring out how bulk and resale options can become a solution. It's not saying goodbye to plastic altogether, but being smart about when and how much plastic we use."

What else needs to be done?

If you look at statistics, Pelletier points out that roughly 90 percent of plastic doesn't get recycled. "It's an absurd amount, so it's actually 'wish-cycling,'" she says. "It leads you to ask, will it really be recycled even if you've done everything on your side." So while a lot of the drive for change is on big beauty brands, it also rests on the shoulders of the consumers and what they're buying as well.

According to Wolf, three things really need to happen in order for the beauty industry to become more sustainable. "One is to stop producing petro-based plastic," he says. That's the most important thing. "Two is to reduce overall consumption—so let's stop using heavy-walled jars, stop putting a jar that's one material mixed with another. Then three is to transition to more sustainable materials." This means wood-based products, paper, and alt-aluminums.

So a lot has to change. "Somebody asked me recently, 'do you feel we'll get there in 10 years?' And my answer is: 'We don't have 10 years,'" says Wolf.  "I've seen a switch in consumer awareness over the past year, and it's bringing a level of awareness and concern—more over just last year than I've seen most of my lifetime combined," he says. "I think consumers will give permission to brands to take another route—to sell products in different kinds of packaging, different delivery systems. They're maybe different than what we're used to, but we are all prepared to be part of the resolution together."

To be more eco-friendly in other aspects of your life, here are the best sustainable swimwear brands to shop from. And these are sustainable activewear brands to sweat it out in. 

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