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The Hard Facts on Recycling Beauty Packaging

April 20, 2020
April 20, 2020
Angela Compagnone via Unsplash

When my beauty products run out, I often find myself looming over the trash and recycling bins, debating which receptacle deserves my empties. If I throw them in the trash, will I turn on the TV and see a helpless sea turtle being impaled with the product I tossed? Will I be tagged in a viral video of a penguin with the subtitles “Thanks a lot Dana, now my lungs are full of glitter!”? If I opt for the recycling bin, will it even be recycled? SO MANY IFS. Even after working in the beauty industry for two decades, I don’t have all of the answers. I remember the moment my curiosity was heightened. I had just purchased a handful of new products and as I was unwrapping their plastic-on-plastic-on-plastic packaging, I became increasingly anxious about the ugly truth. 

This industry is built on making people feel beautiful, but are we simultaneously devastating our planet? There’s an undeniable feeling of guilt when you throw something out that could have been recycled or repurposed, but once it’s out the door or down the chute, it’s “not your problem” anymore. The truth is, it’s still your problem; it’s our collective problem. Trash is like karma—it comes back to haunt you.

All of this waste is compromising our ecosystem and it’s making me nervous, so I asked Terracycle—a company that’s paving the way in recycling—to put my IFs to bed and give me the hard facts to share with you. Because garbage is scary and knowledge is power. I hope you learn as much as I did and take an extra moment to consider your options before your next purge.

What happens to a product once it hits the recycling bin?

Once a product is placed in a recycling bin, it begins a long process of sortation, separation, cleaning (if applicable), and processing before it can ultimately be recycled into a new product. For instance, plastics (a major component of much beauty and cosmetic packaging) may change hands through sales several times before it even begins processing. The Atlantic published a very comprehensive article a few years back that detailed a plastic bottle’s recycling journey. 

What can we do at home to reduce waste from our personal beauty routines?

One tip that individuals can easily implement into their beauty routines is to replace disposable items like makeup wipes and sponges with durable, multi-use alternatives that can be washed and used again and again. Likewise, planning ahead of time for the end-of-life phase of the plastics that you can’t cut out is also advantageous. Consumers are invited to mail in or drop off various types of beauty care waste via TerraCycle’s free brand-sponsored recycling programs. However, it is important to remember that simply buying less is the single-most effective way to reduce beauty care routine waste. 

When and how should we get rid of old or unwanted beauty products?

Great question. A lot of people have the best intentions when attempting to recycle their beauty or cosmetic products but forget to empty out any residual material. The presence of leftover material not only contaminates the original product (relegating it to landfill) but also risks contaminating more otherwise recyclable material that also encounters the residuals. Likewise, when emptying out products, it is important to remember to seal the residuals in a non-recyclable container and dispose of it in the normal garbage since some modern beauty products contain microbeads that risk exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis if flushed down the drain. Consumers can check their town’s recycling guidelines via the easy-to-use database maintained by Call2Recycle to avoid wish-cycling, a counterproductive practice that can cause recycling machinery to break down and that contaminates otherwise recyclable material. They are also invited to see if their waste can be recycled through any of TerraCycle’s free recycling programs

Where do the majority of beauty products end up?

Unfortunately, much of the beauty product waste generated worldwide is destined for landfills and, in the worst possible scenarios, it contributes to litter or the plastic pollution of natural marine habitats. The Ocean Conservancy reports that “every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate our marine environments.” While it is unclear how much of that ocean plastic is a result of people’s beauty routines, a 2014 study by Care to Recycle reports that while an impressive 95% of consumers claim to recycle waste produced in their kitchens (aluminum cans, glass bottles, etc.) only about half do so in other rooms, including the bathroom where a large volume of beauty/cosmetic waste is generated. So, it can be extrapolated that much of the beauty/cosmetics waste that can actually be recycled municipally (like glass bottles and some plastic shampoo or lotion bottles) is not finding its way to a recycling center. 

How much waste does the beauty industry account for?

According to a study by Zero Waste Week and an article published by Stylist, the global cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging every year, which translates to the yearly loss of 18 million acres of forest. To put this statistic into perspective, after just six decades of producing plastic en masse (a staple material in most beauty product packaging), 8.3 billion metric tons have been produced and 91%, the overwhelming majority, has not been recycled.

Can you name a few beauty brands that are taking necessary steps to make a positive change in the waste department?

Over the years, many notable beauty and cosmetic brands have sponsored free recycling programs through TerraCycle to solve for their product’s end-of-life cycle. To name a few, Garnier, Burt’s Bees, eos, Herbal Essences, L’Occitane, Josie Maran, Limelife by Alcone, and Paula’s Choice all currently have TerraCycle programs, and Head & Shoulders partnered with TerraCycle to create the world’s first recyclable shampoo bottle made with beach plastic in 2017. 

How can brands better educate their consumers about recycling?

Brands can help their consumers recycle their products by prominently displaying the product’s recycling symbol and number on their packaging along with the advisory that they should first check what type of plastics are recycled in their town. Likewise, many brands (such as Febreze) have TerraCycle’s symbol on their packaging to denote that their product is recyclable via a TerraCycle program. 

Would you agree that manufacturers should be leading innovation, since they’re typically the first point of contact when it comes to packaging?

Manufacturers have responded to the plastic pollution crisis with several alternatives, namely compostable plastic containers. While these products are certainly innovative since they are produced from renewable resources as opposed to petrochemicals, it is important to note that, according to Greenbiz, “If these materials are not correctly disposed of at their end of life, they will cause just as much damage to our land and marine environments as traditional petrochemical-based plastic litter.” Simply put, there has yet to emerge a “silver bullet” that is poised to solve our plastic pollution crisis. As TerraCycle’s founder and CEO Tom Szaky says, one of the best ways to elicit change is by voting with your dollar since, while we may cast a vote for a political candidate every so often, we decide what brands to support every day through the purchases we make. If brands are willing to innovate by making their product packaging more environmentally friendly, the conscious consumer will respond to their efforts. A lot of brands have already reacted to increased consumer demand for more eco-friendly packaging by either cutting-down on existing packaging or by reinventing their packaging from the ground up through TerraCycle’s Loop, a platform designed to take us from disposability to reusability through cutting-edge technology and packaging design. 

What are the most conscious options for packaging that exist today?

Since much of the packaging currently utilized by beauty brands is comprised of different materials like plastics, glass, and metals, it can be too costly (in terms of time and money) to separate and process. As a result, much of the beauty packaging waste thrown in the blue bin is sorted out by municipal recycling centers and relegated to landfills because even if the consumer does their best to recycle the conventionally recyclable parts of beauty/cosmetic packaging (i.e. cardboard, #1 and #2 plastics, and glass bottles), the remaining pumps, trigger heads, and product tubes are still not accepted by many municipal recycling programs. A good example of this phenomenon are deodorant tubes, described in an article by National Geographic. While the consumer can easily recycle the cardboard box the deodorant might be packaged in, they would need to dismantle the entire deodorant tube (including its tiny plastic pieces) in the hopes of getting it recycled. Even then, the separated plastic components will not be recycled if the municipal recycling facility does not process that specific type of plastic. Even with the best intentions, the act of throwing waste in the blue bin without first consulting your town’s recycling guidelines is known as wish-cycling and is a major stressor for recycling experts. To avoid this, it is recommended that consumers check their town’s specific guidelines via the resource offered by Call2Recycle. Reusable packaging, like that employed by TerraCycle’s Loop, is resoundingly the most eco-conscious option, but since glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled continuously without any loss in the resulting quality, it is the next best thing compared to reusable models. 

What advice would you give a founder who’s in the research & development phase of a future brand?

As aforementioned, eco-friendly packaging design, in the form of reuse models such as Loop, or containers that utilize recycled or less overall material, seem to be the trajectory of packaging design. As consumers become hyper-aware of environmental stories like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for instance, they will begin to expect more environmentally friendly alternatives. 

How is TerraCycle helping brands make a smaller environmental footprint?

The following is an excerpt from TerraCycle’s website on the environmental benefits of recycling through TerraCycle:By sending waste to TerraCycle you will avoid it ending up as litter, in a landfill or incineration facility. Instead, new materials and products will be made with your collected waste, reducing the need to extract new materials from the planet. This avoided impact is not small; for an average product over 90% of the environmental impact comes from extracting and refining the raw materials from which it is made.”

Well, there you have it. As members of the beauty industry, we need to wake up and start making some serious changes. As TerraCycle said above, there are a handful of simple things we can all do to help…

  1. Send our used products to TerraCycle, which is free and takes two seconds to sign up for.
  2. Discard residue from packaging in a non-recyclable container (aka any type of multi-layered plastic bag or pouch) and throw it in the trash instead of flushing it into the water system. 
  3. Buy less single-use products like wipes and sponges and switch to reusable options instead. 
  4. Contact your local government officials to find out best recycling practices. 
  5. Shop less.
  6. Spread the word and share this article with your community.

Here’s to making smarter choices for our planet! 

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