Waste not: Sustainability in the beauty industry

make up packaging

With 120 billion units of packaging being produced annually by the global cosmetics industry, there is an increased pressure on consumers to look at ways to recycle their beauty products. Stephen Clarke, who is the head of communications at TerraCycle Europe, states that ‘beauty product packaging is often composed of a variety of types of materials: mirrored glass, cardboard sleeves, paper inserts, expanded plastic foam; sometimes, all in one item’. Consequently, one third of landfill waste constitutes of personal care products, many of which are make-up containers such as foundation bottles and mascara tubes. With many products being packaged in plastic, they can take as much as one thousand years to decompose; in a study lead by cosmetics giant Garnier, it has been depicted that over half of consumers do not recycle their personal care products due to inconvenience, causing them to end up landfills and litter the environment.

The issue is particularly significant as, over the last years, ‘sustainability in the beauty industry has become a hot topic due to a rise in environmental awareness’ according to The Sustainable Beauty Network. Consumers are eager to spread awareness and are urging brands to become more sustainable, both within their approach to packaging and when sourcing ingredients. The new philosophy predicts that brands, manufacturers, PR teams and consumers will communally seek to eliminate waste and undo the destruction caused by the industry, highlighting the need of brands to adhere to the sustainable movement as a way to remain significant in the future. 

The cosmetic waste issue

The 2020 BBC documentary, ‘Beauty Laid Bare’, depicted multiple issues within the fabrication of cosmetics, from packaging to the components of the formulas; some of them contain glitter or micro-plastics, which can end up in the environment, even when the packaging of the original product has been recycled. ’70 percent of the waste from the beauty industry is from packaging’ according to Arnaud Meysselle, who is the CEO of clean beauty skincare brand REN. Additionally, it is believed that the size of cosmetic packaging can be detrimental when it comes to sorting out recyclable waste, and its repurposing is highly unlikely because, unlike toiletries, which can come in fully recyclable containers – such as deodorant cans or shampoo bottles – make-up containers such as mascara tubes, foundation bottles or make-up palettes are only partly recyclable. The issue is caused by their applicators, magnetic pans and in-built mirrors, which need to be disposed of separately. This urged companies like L’Oreal and Estee Lauder, which own many subsidiary brands each, to attempt to find alternatives to their packaging schemes; L’Oreal is aiming to achieve 100% reusable, refillable or compostable packaging by 2025, as well as source as much as half of the packaging from recycled material. The company has already been seeing an increase in cosmetic recycling, proving that consumer awareness is generating a powerful movement when it comes to sustainability. Stephen Clarke, who is the European Head of Communications at TerraCycle, however, points out that personal care products are not easy to recycle: ‘Many of the design technologies that make personal care products so sqeezable, twistable, portable and generally easy to use render them difficult to recycle… The more complex or costly the packaging, the harder it is to collect, separate and recycle. As a result, it makes it more economically viable to simply trash it than put forth the resources to recover it’. He also points out that make-up is ‘arguably the most complicated category’ to recycle as the plastic items are actually designed to be disposable; additionally, there normally is a mix of materials used with every product. Even the parts of the packaging that are recyclable fall into the ‘difficult-to-recycle’ category, which is a waste stream that is typically not profitable to repurpose within the current infrastructure. Cosmetic containers are also hard to clean, which can compromise the separation process of recycling. Companies such as Unilever have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, with the aim to achieve a circular economy for plastic. Andrew McDougall, the associate director at Mintel Beauty and Personal Care stated that ‘whether reducing or eliminating waste altogether, if brands don’t change their approach now, they will become insignificant’.

Waste-free beauty

According to Mille Kendal, CEO of the British Beauty Council, the ‘waste-free’ movement is ‘rapidly gaining momentum’ in the cosmetics industry, with brands attempting to produce packaging alternatives made from naturally-derived ingredients such as seaweed or bamboo. Cosmetics Business points out the waste-free movement has acquired an established community on social media and across beauty blogs, describing the people who advocate this trend as ‘eco-consumers’ with a ‘healthy appetite for beauty’. Founder of the world’s first zero-waste beauty brand Ethique, Brianne West, said the main impediment in creating a non-wasteful business is the fact that liquid-based products are composed of as much as 95% water – hence needing to be packaged in plastic; she therefore believes that formulating products in solid form can drastically reduce the amount of plastic packaging used by the industry. It has been proven that adopting a zero-waste approach to beauty can be more sustainable and cost-effective altogether, as using products in solid form prevents ‘over-squeezing’ and solid formulas tend to last longer. With the trend constantly on the rise, recent research showed that 50% of UK beauty consumers stated that they would pay more for products to avoid plastic packaging, with the highest sense of sustainable guilt being recored with Millennials and Get Z natives. When looking at the implications of adopting a zero-waste lifestyle, research shows that, when approached correctly, the movement can ‘put the environment and economics on the same side’. The general movement relies on the ‘four Rs’ (recycle, reuse, reduce and redesign), all of which can be applied to the beauty industry, which is achievable through self-education about plastic-free alternatives to products. Some experts, however, think that the best approach to adapting to the ‘waste-free’ beauty movement is to purchase products that come in packaging derived from natural ingredients, as soil can break down natural ingredients quicker than synthetic ones such as plastic; this can, in the long run, actually help the environment due to their biological growth period. Others, however, contradict the idea that any packaging production or decomposition is not harmful the environment at all – ‘it is not enough to sustain. From an environmental perspective, you cannot just not negatively impact the world’ says Camilla Marcus Dew, head of Sustainable Growth at ClaritynCo.  

Solutions to the packaging issue

The overall solution relies on a combination of formula innovation and packaging design, and it is believed that, in the upcoming years, brands will adopt more technologies to help make the cosmetics production process and disposal more sustainable. Brands such as Lush, The Body Shop and REN Clean Skincare are looking at sustainable alternatives when it comes to packaging production, whilst Garnier has partnered up with TerraCycle in an attempt to find solutions to packaging waste. Many industry experts, however, think refillable products are the best way to combat packaging waste, acknowledging that they do, however, require a shift in consumer behaviour. L’Occitaine is one of the many brands that offer consumers the option to buy their products in refillable pouches whilst also incorporating Loop PET (sustainably sourced plastic) into the disposable packaging of the products that cannot be refilled. Similarly to the aforementioned brand founder, Brianne West, many believe that looking at manufacturing products in a solid form is the appropriate answer, referring back to the high water composition of many beauty products. Other specialists argue that biodegradable materials are the way forward, as, by definition, they are made from ‘a substance or object that is capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organism and thereby avoid pollution’. Paula Chin, who is a Sustainable Materials Specialist at WWF UK highlights that consumers perceive bio-degradable products the same as they view compostable ones, with the difference between the two being that bio-degradable plastic, for example, still results in environment contamination. Compostable materials, however,  create a need for urgency when it comes to storing and shipping products due to their nature to ‘expire’, making it more costly for brands to swap to these alternatives in the long run. When looking at the conversations surrounding sustainable alternatives to product packaging, the main point to be taken away is that it definitely requires a change in production and shipping patterns, as well as being less cost effective for brands looking to adhere to the movement. Many companies are now looking at introducing sustainable packaging, with brands like Olay testing the market by selling its top selling moisturiser, Regenerist Whip, in refillable packaging. Chanel has also partnered up with ‘green’ chemistry company, Evolved by Nature, in an effort to champion ‘eco-friendly’ efforts when it comes to beauty packaging. Nonita Karla, beauty editor at Haper’s Bazaar India, stated that, unlike fashion, where industry authorities have joined under The Fashion Pact to ‘work towards sustainability goals’, beauty brands are ‘yet to come together for a collaborative push’. 

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