We know plastic is a big problem in the personal care industry. A look around your bathroom will tell you as much but to give some wider context, in its sustainability studies, L’Oréal estimates that packaging accounts for, on average, 50 percent of the environmental footprint of its products.
It’s something that L’Oréal, and many of its peers in the beauty industry, is making moves to address. It seems every hour on the hour there’s a new brand or company pledging to get rid of superfluous packaging or to up its use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic or to switch to other materials entirely, some of which they say are biodegradable. Those are often steps in the right direction, but in truth, we’re just scratching the surface. There’s still much to sort out and it’s all a bit confusing.
Here, a look at the current, well, climate, plus guidance that can help lead you to the best possible purchasing decisions — because we should all be thinking of each one as a vote. “How we purchase things is more powerful than our political [moves],” says Tom Szaky, CEO of recycling giant TerraCycle. “When we buy certain things or don’t buy other things, it changes the world more aggressively and more quickly.”
So, first, here is what to know about plastic packaging.
Plastic packaging is rarely recycled (yes, even when you do everything right).
So far, the big promise of recycling has largely failed us — only nine percent of the plastic is ever actually remade into something usable. One reason why: If you don’t clean that bottle or jar fully and remove all stickers, residue, etc., it will be rejected — and can even contaminate a whole batch of material sent for recycling, according to a report last year by GreenPeace.
Looking for that little triangle of arrows on the bottom isn’t necessarily a slam dunk either. The reality is that only packaging with a 1 or 2 stamped in that triangle is going to be widely municipally recyclable. A quick experiment: Of five plastic-housed beauty products randomly selected from this writer’s medicine cabinet, two had no recycling symbol at all, one was a category 4, one was category 2 and the final was a 1.
But there’s even more to consider: For example, if a plastic pump includes metal (which almost all do), it can’t be processed. (This is something some brands like Love Beauty and Planet are addressing with new designs.)
“Another uncommonly known fact is that dark plastics — such as black, navy, or dark brown — cannot often be seen by sorters in recycling facilities and so they end up in landfills,” says Sarah Dearman, vice president of circular ventures for The Recycling Partnership. Also a problem for sorters: small packaging. According to TerraCycle’s Szaky, nothing smaller than two-inches cubed is ever going to be recycled — that’s pretty much every cap, lid, and a lot of beauty minis.
At the end of the day, recycling is a business. Recycling plants will only recycle what they can recycle at a profit — things like large pieces of clear plastic, clear glass, and aluminum. “The question is really not can something be recycled, but will it be,” Szaky said at a recent sustainability summit.
When plastic is recycled, there are still a couple of catches.
I am by no means suggesting you give up on trying to recycle the plastic that comes into your life. Even a nine-percent recycling rate is a lot of plastic that avoids a landfill. In 2018, for example, just in the U.S. alone, 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were created for beauty and personal care products, according to Euromonitor International.
What’s nine percent of that? 711 million units of rigid plastic. Plastic isn’t endlessly reworkable, though — most plastics can only be processed once or twice. Recycling plastic essentially downgrades its resulting quality every time it is put through the process — and that means virgin plastic may have to be added to make a “recycled” package functional.
And, of course, there needs to be a demand for post-consumer recycled plastic for it to have anywhere to go. With reports of large amounts of plastic being incinerated or sitting in storage due to lack of need, this has been a real problem. However, with more companies working with recycled material very slowly increasing, there is some hope for the future.
“Biodegradable” plastic very often… isn’t.
You may notice a shift toward plastic made from natural sources designed to break down more quickly. “These include materials such as sugarcane, and there are also opportunities to source from other innovative feedstocks such as seaweed and other algae, as well as food waste by-products,” says Olga Kachook, senior manager at GreenBlue, a nonprofit dedicated to the sustainable use of materials.
These alternative plastics could have a big positive impact: A 2017 study found that switching from traditional plastic to corn-based material could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.
Yet there’s a pretty big “but” here. Some of these alternative materials can contain additives that “may actually result in more environmental harm,” says Kachook. And the term “biodegradable” itself unfortunately doesn’t mean much. “Biodegradability is driven by many factors and stating a package is ‘biodegradable’ doesn’t qualify the timeline, conditions required, safety of the elements, or the degree of degradation,” says Alison Younts, lead sustainability consultant at the consulting company Trayak.
And, for now, looking for the word “compostable” doesn’t help either. A compostable certification only indicates that a material is able to break down in large municipal or industrial composting facilities as opposed to a home or community bin. Right now only four percent of Americans have access to curbside composting pickup, says Szaky. And in a recent study conducted by TerraCycle, only one in 10 of the industrial composters where those curbside binds wind up actually accept compostable plastics.
But plastic isn’t all bad. (Didn’t see that coming did you?)
Yes, plastic pollution is a crisis. But, unfortunately, there is no magic-bullet alternative material, and plastic alternatives can in some cases cause as much if not more environmental impact.
Glass, aluminum, and paper all have their own drawbacks — including being more expensive, something consumers may not be ready for, according to a 2019 Euromonitor report — and choosing one of them over plastic isn’t always a sure-fire path to reducing your overall carbon footprint.
Take aluminum, which gets a lot of buzz for being widely recycled, endlessly reusable if uncontaminated, and lightweight. However, it’s important to note that it’s recycled aluminum that gets all the love. When the package you’re buying is virgin, it’s another story, as the byproducts of producing new aluminum, according to the EPA, have global warming potentials (GWP) 6,500 to 9,200 times as strong as carbon dioxide.
And, of course, it has to be recycled by the consumer, which happens about 35 percent of the time when it comes to the category including packaging, according to the EPA. While that’s a number much stronger than plastic recycling, it still leaves a lot of room for improvement.
Paper has its own concerns. When it comes to virgin materials, Life cycle assessments of paper, including those in a case study looking at grocery bags in Singapore published this year in the Journal of Cleaner Production, suggest plastic bags could have a lower overall environmental footprint than paper ones. Recycling paper does cut its CO2 output (as is the case with most recycled materials compared to their virgin counterparts) by a considerable amount (40 percent less) but it can only be recirculated between five to seven times, according to the EPA.
And then there’s glass, a material with complex considerations. It’s not always practical, as soapy hands and steamy conditions offer the threat of shattered bottles in your shower. And according to a study published last year in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment that put pasteurized milk bottles made of virgin plastic, recycled plastic, glass, and returnable glass bottles head to head, even after factoring in the savings from reuse, returnable glass ranked behind plastic in CO2 emissions due to the high energy demand in the production process, as well as the carbon footprint of shipping it.
But reusable glass came out on top in another important category the: marine litter indicator. Glass doesn’t have the same impact seen in marine life as plastic does as it breaks down. (In 2015, one study found that a quarter of the fish sold at markets in Indonesia and California, for example, were found to contain human made debris–either plastic or other fibrous materials.)
It’s hard out here for an environmentally-conscious consumer. And it can be a tough call for brands when deciding which tradeoffs to make. “Plastic packaging offers a number of benefits, including being lightweight and often requiring less material overall for a package than other materials like glass and aluminum,” says Kachook. “Switching to other formats without considering the tradeoffs might increase the emissions of shipping or sourcing the material.”
So what do we, as beauty-loving consumers, do?
For all of the many factors in this conversation, that answer to that question is actually pretty simple. First and foremost, focus on the “reduce” portion of reduce, reuse, recycle. Strip your routine down to the basics and simply buy less stuff. When possible, you can opt for packaging-free bar options (such as Ethique’s shampoo and conditioner bars).
Refillable packaging is another thing to consider, either directly through beauty brands with refill programs or via Loop, which offers borrowable containers given for a refundable deposit you get back when you return the empty to be professionally cleaned and reused. Pantene, REN, The Body Shop, and more are part of the program, and it recently got a big boost by partnering with Ulta to create the loopbyulta.com store.
For the empties you do end up with, there are ways to up your chances of having the material reused. First, you can check to see if the brand behind it has a mail-back recycling program of its own like Burt’s Bees. If it doesn’t, TerraCycle takes packaging (including hard-to-recycle items) either through drop-off locations (including Nordstrom stores) or via mail with purchasable boxes and labels.
The organization (which is also behind the Loop store) estimates that last year about 10 percent of all the waste it diverted from landfills in 2020 was related to the beauty industry, thanks in part to its launch of over 50 new recycling programs around the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. “By the end of 2020, about one-third of all of our active brand-sponsored recycling programs were for beauty-related products,” says Alex Payne, North American public relations associate for TerraCycle.
Finally, it’s simply back to showing up with your dollars (i.e., votes) by researching before you add to cart. There are niche lines focusing on sustainability (like the 90 percent plastic-free We Are Paradoxx) and companies finding smart ways to reduce their plastic waste (like Colgate’s new Keep toothbrush with an aluminum handle that you, well, keep forever, replacing only the small plastic head) and big splashy pledges from big brands (like Unilever’s plan for sustainable living and Estée Lauder Companies’ new initiative to create an advanced recycled tube package some time this year) and smaller promises to use more PCR material to reduce the demand for virgin plastic… it all adds up.
Pay attention as well to partnerships with groups such as GreenBlue‘s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which helps companies make more sustainable choices as well as educate consumers with its clear How2Recycle labeling program. The Recycling Partnership has created the Pathway of Circularity program to help guide companies through the process of creating packaging materials that will actually get recycled. They’re currently working with Burt’s Bees, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal USA, Procter & Gamble, and more.
Buying from these brands making moves truly helps the bigger picture. “Investors are looking at what the consumer is doing,” says Simon Fischweicher, head of corporations and supply chains at CDP North America. Nonprofit that runs a global disclosure system for investors and companies to manage their environmental impacts. Purchasing a product that is labeled or advertised to have more sustainable packaging in itself can have a positive impact.
“Maybe spending that extra 75 cents isn’t going to change the world, but that decision is part of a collection of decisions that people are making that creates a trend,” says Fischweicher. And, trends can become movements — the hope here is to make the movement big enough that it’s not even a possibility for brands not to act.