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The Evolution of Retail Recycling Initiatives

Published April 25, 2023
Published April 25, 2023
Pact Collective

While new evidence has emerged that counters the arguments around the scale, scope, and magnitude of our plastic waste problem, the beauty industry is still, nonetheless, a huge producer of packaging components and waste.

With recycling infrastructures struggling to keep up with our consumption habits, brands and retailers have been taking matters into their own hands to contribute to reducing waste in whatever ways possible. Over 100 businesses, including L’Oréal and Unilever, committed themselves to circular business practices through a statement from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation back in 2021. Other brands that have had recycling initiatives in place for decades are overhauling their initiatives to increase positive impact.

For 32 years, MAC Cosmetics has been pushing empties recycling with its Back to MAC model, whereby individuals would receive a free lipstick for every six empty brand product containers they brought back to the store. According to WWD, in 2022 alone, 9.3 million lipsticks or 340,000 pounds of empty MAC containers were collected. The brand recently donated $100,000 to Plastics for Change to further aid their mission and are now using the exacting process of end-to-end solutions provider Close the Loop to increase the amount of reusable material coming out of the recycled components. MAC estimates up to 440,000 pounds of product will be recycled this year through the initiative.

Lush introduced its Back to Lush recycling scheme in 2009, revamping it as the Bring It Back scheme in 2021 for stores in the UK and Ireland. For every packaging component returned, customers will receive $0.50 towards their next purchase, and for five full-sized items returned they will receive a free face mask. Lush recently added the cash incentive after the company learned that only 9%-12% of plastic is recycled globally, therefore further benefits were added to encourage recycling.

Last year, 720,000 items were returned, but Lush is quick to admit that such schemes  are an important piece of the puzzle, but not a complete solution to product waste issues. The company states: “It’s true, we cannot recycle our way out of the climate crisis, but taking responsibility for the packaging we create as a business is an important step in the evolution towards a circular economy.”

Multi-brand retailer-based recycling initiatives have a twofold benefit. Firstly, given the increased traffic they get compared to single-stop boutiques, there’s a bigger audience to take them up on the offer. Secondly, smaller brands can have access to systems that might have otherwise been out of reach. Nordstrom and Boots introduced recycling schemes in previous years, while Harrods and MYGroup recently piloted a recycling scheme to repurpose even “unrecyclable” products like nail polish.

This month, Pact Collective is introducing not one but two different initiatives to help the environment. The enterprise recently announced a partnership with Benefit Cosmetics for a recycling program on the brand’s website. By requesting a shipping label, customers can send up to five empty beauty products from any brand in the mail, with shipping costs covered, to be recycled through Pact Collective.

Sephora is also harnessing the company’s resources to launch the Beauty (Re)Purposed empties collection program, which will be available in all US and Canadian stores (over 600 in total) as of next month. Previously the retailer had teamed up with specialty recycler g2 revolution to keep 23.7 million pounds of product waste from entering landfills. Now shoppers can drop off their clean, empty packaging at any Sephora store collection bin, which then will, depending on the volume and contamination of donated items, be used to create new packaging, asphalt, pallets, and more. 

"The launch of the Beauty (Re)Purposed program is an exciting step forward in Sephora’s commitment to leading the industry and offering more sustainable solutions for the communities we serve. And the reality is that discarding beauty packaging can be complex for many consumers," Desta Raines, Director of Sustainability at Sephora, tells BeautyMatter. "It was important for Sephora to find a partner like Pact who shares our values and, in collaboration, can help to educate our clients and the broader industry in making the process more accessible for all.”

Ultimately the more resources available to consumers for recycling, the better. Removing brand barriers when it comes to donating packaging are helpful, but depending on the recycling facilities available or any restrictions around the types of materials that can be dropped off, this isn’t possible for all. Luring consumers to return products only to receive more products may seem like a contradiction to some, as reduced product consumption overall may perhaps be the most powerful tool in our fight against waste; however, every piece of product that avoids its fate in the landfill or local sidewalk is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Perhaps the biggest roadblock are the facilities available to process all the packaging we are producing—something that the beauty industry alone cannot solve. The more hands on deck the better.


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