“Beauty products in general, especially high-end beauty products, tend to be laden with very heavy packaging,” says Randi Kronthal-Sacco, senior research fellow for corporate marketing and outreach at NYU’s Stern Center for Sustainable Business. . “So any opportunity to reduce the plastic, carbon and energy associated with production is a really good thing.”
Sustainability in beauty product packaging is a big issue because most products are made from containers that municipal recycling centers cannot process.. So if you’re throwing your moisturizer in your household recycling bin, chances are it’s going to end up in a landfill. In addition to paying more for these high-end sustainable products, consumers must also ensure that their waste is managed properly. So far, the industry has come up with two significant solutions: refillable products and specialized mail/delivery recycling. Neither option is perfect as they rely on the consumer to go the extra mile. But they are a step in the right direction.
“The fact that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 is not just hyperbole, crazy exaggeration. It’s a sickening fact and we can’t run away from it,” says Mia Davis, vice president of Credo Beauty. sustainability and impact. “We have to recognize that, and we have to work on all fronts to try to stop the flow of plastic and other debris into the ocean.”
Exploring rechargeable beauty products
When Kirsten Kjaer Weis founded her eponymous makeup brand in 2010, conscious packaging was top of mind. “In all my years in the field as a makeup artist, I saw firsthand the volume of virgin plastic I would throw away annually,” she says. As a result, the brand has had refillable items since its launch in 2010. Brands like Augustinus Bader, La Bouche Rouge and Kérastase also make products in refillable packaging to reduce waste. This means you can buy a serum, lipstick, or shampoo, for example, and refill it when you’re out and about using a container that is plastic-free or uses much less plastic than the original container.
While giving up a new tube of lipstick may not seem like such a shock, Davis says it all adds up. At La Rouge Bouche, that looks like an $80 reusable leather case and $40 interchangeable insert. At Kjaer Weiss, that’s a $48 reusable and $30 for later refills.
“When you look at a refillable lipstick tube and think about the volumes of plastic, it can seem a bit pointless,” says Davis. “But everyone uses different products. If we could all buy them on refill, or even a much larger percentage of them were on refill, the amount of waste reduction would be huge.”
For refillable items to be meaningful, consumers must be willing to shell out more for the initial refillable container and commit to using it. “It’s a great brand loyalty strategy for companies,” says Kronthal-Sacco, who spent more than 20 years working in the beauty industry at brands like Johnson & Johnson and Rodan+Fields.. “So instead of going from one brand to another, as is common among people who really care about beauty products, it’s a way for companies to engage and reward loyalty.”
Kjaer Weis and Augustinus Bader report consumer loyalty when it comes to refills. Kjaer Weis says that nearly a third of his business is buying top-ups, and the number is growing every year. Augustinus Bader offers refills for three of its more than 20 products. Refills account for nearly 50 percent of all eye cream and serum purchases from launch to date. And while Ultimate Soothing Cream ($280) has only been available for a little over two months, refills account for nearly 10 percent of total sales.
Unpacking the recyclability of beauty packaging
The harsh reality is that most beauty product packaging is not recycled, because proper disposal of these items is certainly a challenge. First, consumers must remember to recycle. If it’s in your kitchen, it’s probably a few steps from your recycling bin, so it may be easier to remember. But is that where you are applying your products? “Most of their engagement with beauty products happens in the bathroom, where people tend to throw it away and don’t even necessarily think about recyclability,” says Kronthal-Sacco.
But the biggest and most damaging problem is that most of the beauty products that make it to recycling centers end up in landfills anyway. This is because, of the seven different types of plastic, only types one and two (think: water bottles, milk jugs, and shampoo bottles) can commonly be processed by municipal centers. And no matter the type of plastic, if it’s colored, small, or mixed with other materials like metal or glass, it won’t be recycled.
“The reason products and packaging are not accepted through local recycling solutions has very little to do with the ability to technically recycle those products and packaging and more to do with the economics behind it,” says Stephanie Moses, director of senior accounts. at the waste management company TerraCycle. Basically, recycling types one and two is simple and cost-effective, which means recycling centers can benefit from doing it. For the other types, it’s the opposite: recycling centers would lose money trying to recycle them.
That’s why TerraCycle partners with brands to cover recycling costs. Individual brands like Murad pay directly for their customers to mail in their empty containers, while stores like Nordstrom allow consumers to drop off their containers. They are then broken down and recycled into items like storage containers, floor tiles, and outdoor furniture. But it’s hard enough getting consumers to drop items in recycling bins. Getting your junk mailed or returned to the store is a whole different hurdle.
“In the best case, TerraCycle would not have to exist, as there would be infrastructure to be able to offer recycling for all materials,” says Moses. “But the reality is that what we’re here to do is provide a solution where solutions don’t already exist, based on where the world is.”
Since recycling these materials is such a cumbersome process, it seems like the best option would be to place beauty products in easy-to-recycle containers. But it’s not that simple. Some brands are doing this: OSEA and Alpyn Beauty use mostly glass packaging, while brands like Eva NYC and Sándor house their products in aluminum. But, the ability to do this is determined by various factors such as cost and product type. For example, since SPF stops working after a few hours of sun exposure, you probably don’t want to store it in a glass jar. And a serum housed in plastic that’s as thin and malleable as an easy-to-recycle soda bottle probably won’t hold up well, either.
“There are properties with harder plastics that can reduce damage or pollution,” says Kronthal-Sacco. “It can also have to do with sourcing, aesthetics and technical challenges in producing beautiful packaging that is recyclable.”
The next step
A handful of refillable brands and mail-order recycling are by no means the end of it all, there is still a length way to go. We are beginning to see seeds planted of what could, in time, become true systemic change, but for now, sustainable beauty remains an oxymoron.
“We can’t consume our way to sustainability. They’re inherently at odds,” says Davis. “I’m a sustainability expert in a space that sells things. So I get the tension there, I live that tension. But you can’t just say, ‘This is sustainable,’ if you’re making a product and out in the world to sell it. If you’re packaging a product, if you’re shipping ingredients by air around the world, you’re having an impact on the planet and on human health. What we need to do is have the most thoughtful, holistic, transparent lens that we can have, to really lessen the impact on environment”.
That’s why Davis has taken everything she’s learned from Credo and her 15 years in the industry to launch the Pact Collective, a group of more than 100 beauty brands working to make the industry as sustainable as possible. They are connecting packaging manufacturers, brands, retailers, customers and material recovery facilities to try to work towards one central goal: no more products going to landfill.
“Beauty has a lot of work to do on the road to sustainability, but there’s also a lot of interest,” says Davis. “That’s really exciting.”
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