Cosmetics: A beautiful waste
The use of cosmetics has become an indelible part of our everyday routines, and so too has the waste that comes with it. Just what is the extent of the beauty industry’s throwaway culture and can it be changed? Kate Dickinson investigates
From disposable plastic razors and toothbrushes, to synthetic makeup sponges and brushes, to creams and cleansers in plastic tubs and toothpaste in aluminium-lined plastic tubes: it’s hard to know where to start when looking at waste in the personal care and beauty industry.
Billions of these items, and their packaging, are thrown out every year, items that are so central to how we live our lives we might just write them off as necessary waste. Take a look at toothbrushes, for instance. If everyone changed their toothbrush every three months, that’s a potential 264 million brushes thrown out annually in the UK alone.
There are alternatives for the most environmentally-conscious of us. The compostable bamboo toothbrush, for instance, is growing in popularity – but most bamboo options have bristles made of plastic and nylon, just like standard toothbrushes, that need to be removed before the brush can be composted. Not to mention that they may not be accepted in municipal organic waste recycling systems – so if you don’t compost at home, they might end up in the residual waste just like a plastic brush.
Even if you’re happily using your alternative toothbrush, there’s the question of toothpaste, which most often comes in flexible plastic tubes, sometimes with an aluminium lining. Hard tubes are easier to process, but cleaning them out for recycling can be a pain, and even then not all councils accept them.
There is progress on this front: TerraCycle, a recycling company that focuses on niche and difficult-to-process items, has recently launched an oral care product recycling programme in the UK, in partnership with Colgate, which accepts tubes, brushes and more, turning them into recycled products such as benches.
Despite the admirable efforts by TerraCycle to pick up the recycling slack on some of these complex materials, its schemes have faced criticism for failing to address the wider waste problem. Speaking on TerraCycle’s new Pringles can recycling programme, sponsored by Kelloggs, Simon Ellin of the Recycling Association described it as “a fudge that doesn’t solve the issues”, adding: “The solution to turn them into pellets to be used in benches and fence posts isn’t circular by reusing the plastic again in the packaging.” Big companies can sponsor niche recycling programmes like these to ease their environmental conscience, but products continue to be made and packaged using materials that are difficult and costly to recycle.
Evidently, the single-use and complicated materials in everyday items make buying and living sustainably a minefield – and that’s just the kit you need to brush your teeth. Think about the morning ritual more widely – it’s likely to include any or all of the following: face wash, cleanser, moisturiser, sun cream, foundation, concealer, powder, mascara... All sold in variations of a little plastic pot.
It’s clear that there is a problem with the way many of these products are packaged. Makeup artist Katey Denno, who work with some of Hollywood’s top actresses, says there is “absolutely” an issue: “Packaging waste, coupled with the lack of safety regulation within the US cosmetics industry, is off the charts horrendous, and completely unacceptable.” She adds: “I think it’s imperative that we push big brands to change the status quo and recognize the enormous tax we’ve put on our planet by thinking that there’s such a concept as ‘throwing something away’.”
Ruth Andrade at Lush agrees, describing packaging waste in the cosmetics industry as “one of the worst offenders... mainly because many brands use packaging to convey the idea of luxury, to make people feel good about themselves, so the packaging must be sumptuous and compete with all other brands out there.”
She continues: “Take perfumes for example – it is possible to see heavy bottles [along with] mixed materials that cannot be recycled, leaflets, a cardboard box wrapped in plastic film. For most cosmetics and personal care products, the packaging will have cost more than the ingredients that are housed inside. Also, in the case of make-up or smaller items such as serums, which can be quite expensive, brands use excessive packaging to convey value, to convey to the customer that the product is worth that much. So this combination of marketing ploys to manipulate consumer perception is much more present in the cosmetics industry than the food industry, for example.”
Nicolle Mackinnon, green beauty writer and editor of lifestyle website W.E.L.L. Insiders, points out the additional problem created by the rise of online sales: “With both luxury beauty and personal care products and drugstore varieties, packaging is abundant. We see lots of single-use plastic, and many unnecessary boxes for the selling of products, but also in the packaging for delivering these products worldwide.”
Indeed, 2017 was the worst year on record for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, with online sellers like Amazon Online and beauty retailers like Feel Unique, Cult Beauty and Look Fantastic offering wider ranges of brands than can be found in shops. They also stock brands that are promoted by social media influencers, who often offer discounts if you buy online using a code. Kylie Cosmetics, for instance, popularised through heavy rotation by Youtube and Instagram beauty vloggers, is only sold online. And online sales often bring even more packaging, amplifying the problem; you only need to type ‘Amazon packaging’ into Google or Twitter to see numerous examples of how the big online marketplaces can get it very wrong.
There are not many statistics available specifically for cosmetics, but Euromonitor suggests that the industry produces 120 billion units of packaging per year. Andrade states: “If one were to analyse which percentage of those units are really protecting the product at the right weight and size, I imagine it would be a very small proportion.”
Eleanor O’Connor, Communications Co-ordinator at the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA), the UK cosmetics trade association, is keen to point out that there is, of course, a level of packaging that is necessary: “Packaging must contain the product, protect it during the manufacturing process [and during] storage and transport and enable easy use by the customer, as well as hold increasing amounts of labelling.
“Cosmetics packaging is unusual in that it must also be durable as most products are in use for several weeks, months or, sometimes, years, sometimes whilst being carried around by the consumer. Packaging is also integral in enhancing the performance of the product.”
It is difficult to look at the cosmetics and personal care industry in isolation, especially when, as O’Connor states, cosmetics packaging represents less than 1.5 per cent by weight of all packaging used in the UK.
However, an increasing number of brands and producers within the industry are recognising the importance of reducing their impact on the environment – and the acclaim this can win them from an increasingly discerning consumer base.
It is clear that sustainability is increasingly becoming a key purchasing criteria for brands and packaging manufacturers. With public awareness of the plastic waste crisis at an all time high, people are beginning to demand more environmentally-friendly products – and companies are starting to take note, signing up in their droves to a variety of international waste-reduction pledges.
Circular economy experts at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) recently launched the ‘New Plastics Economy Global Commitment’, which aims to eliminate ‘problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reuse packaging models’, as well as to ‘ensure 100 per cent of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled or composted by 2025’.
“Design for recyclability is paramount, alongside rationalising materials and improving recycling by improving plants,” O’Connor says when asked where companies should focus their efforts. “Cosmetics companies encourage their packaging suppliers to look at new methods and technologies for making packaging – everything from more environmentally-friendly printing inks to improved design of bottles, from new machinery to using more recycled materials.”
Over 290 organisations and governments have signed the EMF’s commitment, including big hitters in the personal care sector: Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson and Johnson and L’Oreal, to name a few. Then there is the UK Plastics Pact, launched in April 2018, which boasts many of these same companies as members. The Pact is a world-first, with its members (jointly responsible for over 80 per cent of the plastic packaging in UK supermarkets) committed to eliminating ‘problematic or unnecessary’ single-use plastic packaging. They have also pledged to make 100 per cent of their packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and to include 30 per cent recycled content across all plastic packaging.
Agreements like the Plastics Pact and the New Plastics Economy Commitment are at a very early stage. Plastics Pact members will be reporting on their progress in April 2019, at which point we may learn about some more concrete actions taken to address the issue. But some voluntary commitments by companies are already bearing fruit; Procter and Gamble, for instance, one of the founding members of the UK Plastics Pact, has launched a shampoo bottle made from recycled beach plastic.
Whether the launch of this limited edition bottle reflects lasting change in the company, rather than simply a short- term, headline-grabbing product, remains to be seen.
There is also a growing number of smaller beauty and cosmetics companies that are putting sustainability first. Sulapac, an award-winning Finnish start-up, has been developing biodegradable and compostable cosmetics packaging made from sustainably-sourced wood and natural adhesives. Co-founder Suvi Haimi explains: “Our key driver has from the very beginning been that everything Sulapac produces is fully biodegradable and microplastic free.”
Both Denno and Mackinnon also highlight beauty brand Kjaer Weis as one to watch in the sustainable cosmetics world – a company offering refillable containers for its products. But one thing that connects Kjaer Weis, Sulapac and many other ‘green’ brands is that they tend to focus mainly on the luxury cosmetics market.
I asked Denno whether buying ethical and sustainable beauty products is a luxury, or whether it is becoming more accessible to everyone. “It’s definitely still a luxury for 85 per cent of all products,” she says, “but brands like Burt’s Bees, and Weleda, along with a handful of others, have wonderful offerings at affordable prices, in more accessible markets. The rest of the industry lags behind.” Lush is one mainstream brand that has been light years ahead of its competition when it comes to sustainability.
Andrade explains: “We have been using 100 per cent post- consumer recycled plastics since 2007. All our bottles and pots have been made from recycled plastics since then, and we use recycled bottles as our reusable gift-wrap.
She adds: “One of our latest projects is our containers for solid shampoo bars, made from cork from regenerative projects in Portugal, where they are restoring the local ecosystems while harvesting cork… Cork is such a brilliant material, it is light, durable, easily composted and with the advent of plastic wine bottles and growing desertification in Southern Portugal, restoring local cork production also has tremendous social and economic benefits.”
In addition, for the past 10 years Lush has offered a takeback scheme for the black pots that many of its products are contained in. The company has its own reprocessing facility, where the used pots are ground and converted into new packaging. There has also been a recent push towards selling products entirely unpackaged, with a ‘naked’ shop opened in Milan showcasing the possibilities of selling packaging-free products.
The path forward
Lush is making strides – and other companies are beginning to follow in its wake. But questions persist as to whether voluntary action by retailers will be enough to stem the plastic tide, or whether governments need to get more fully involved.
In the most recent budget, UK Chancellor Philip Hammond announced plans to introduce a plastics tax by April 2022, affecting the manufacture and import of plastic packaging containing less than 30 per cent recycled plastic. This news was generally well-received, though many responses called for stronger commitments in the upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy, if the government is to achieve its goal of reaching zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042.
In a statement on the budget, Pat Jennings, CIWM’s Head of Policy and Communications, described the tax proposal as “a good start”, but added that “there is still more to be done. Recyclability needs to be built in at the design stage and this will require a stronger and expanded Extended Producer Responsibility framework.”
Regardless of the actions of government to incentivise and obligate producers to make change, there is a consensus among many that consumers hold a lot of power themselves. “Consumers can be an agent of change,” Andrade says. “And as the consumers change their habits, then more shops will get onboard and develop the supply chain to support this.” Sulapac’s Haimi agrees: “Consumers drive the change and what we see today is that they demand better sustainable alternatives; I believe forerunner brands will be the winners.”
With businesses beginning to wake up to the need to make change, it seems that momentum could be moving in the right direction. In the meantime, there are some simple, affordable options for anyone looking to cut down on their plastic packaging waste at home.
Mackinnon explains: “What is, and always has been accessible, is single ingredient skin and body care. Coconut oil, jojoba oil, argan oil, bentonite clay, raw honey, ground oatmeal... these are all ingredients that can easily be incorporated into your beauty routine and give many of the same effects of more expensive, formulated products.”