“Beauty products in general, luxury beauty products in particular, are very heavy-handed,” says Randi Kronthal-Sacco, a senior scholar in marketing and corporate communications at the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business. “So any opportunity to reduce plastic, carbon, and energy associated with production is a very good thing.”
Sustainability in beauty product packaging is a big deal because many products are made from containers that municipal recycling centers cannot recycle.. So if you’re tossing your moisturizer in your recycling bin at home, chances are it’s going to end up in a landfill. In addition to paying more for these high quality sustainable products, consumers also need to ensure that their waste is handled properly. So far, the industry has come up with two key solutions: refillable products and mail-in/drop-off specialty recycling. There is no perfect option, as they rely on users to go further. But they are a step in the right direction.
“The fact that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 is not just an exaggeration, an exaggeration. It’s a disgusting reality, and we can’t run away from that,” says Mia Davis, vice president of Credo Beauty. sustainability and impact. “We have to accept that, and we have to work together to try to stop the flow of plastic and other waste into the ocean.”
Explores refillable beauty products
When Kirsten Kjaer Weis launched her well-known cosmetics brand in 2010, careful packaging made sense. “In all my years in the field as a makeup artist, I saw first hand the amount of plastic that I would throw away every year,” he says. Therefore, the brand has had refillable products since its launch in 2010. Brands such as Augustinus Bader, La Bouche Rouge and Kérastase also make products in refillable containers to reduce your waste. This means that you can buy one serum, lipstick or shampoo, for example, and refill it when you leave using a container that is plastic-free or uses much less plastic than the original container.
While mentioning a new lipstick tube may seem counterintuitive, Davis says it all adds up. At La Rouge Bouche, that looks like an $80 reusable leather case and a $40 replaceable insert. At Kjaer Weiss, that’s $48 for refills and $30 for refills.
“When you look at a refillable lipstick tube and think about the plastic packaging, it can feel a little hopeless,” says Davis. “But everyone uses different products. If we could all buy recycled ones, or even a higher percentage of those were recycled, the amount of waste reduction would be huge.”
For refillables to make sense, consumers have to be willing to pay more for the original refillable container and commit to using it. “It’s a great brand loyalty strategy for the company,” says Kronthal-Sacco, who spent more than 20 years working in the beauty industry at brands like Johnson & Johnson and Rodan+Fields.. “So that instead of moving from brand to brand, as is common for people in beauty products, it’s a way for the company to engage and reward loyalty.”
Kjaer Weis and Augustinus Bader both report on consumer loyalty when it comes to refills. Kjaer Weis says that about a third of its business is refill purchases, with the number increasing every year. Augustinus Bader offers refills on three of its 20-plus products. Refills account for nearly 50 percent of all eye serum and cream purchases since launch. And even though Ultimate Soothing Cream ($280) has been available for just over two months, refills account for about 10 percent of all sales.
Open recycling of beauty products
The harsh reality is that most beauty packaging is not recyclable, because it is admittedly a challenge to dispose of these items properly. First, consumers should remember to recycle. If you’re in your kitchen, you’re likely steps away from your recycling bin, so it can be easy to remember. But is that where you use your products? “A lot of your beauty product engagement is happening in the bathroom where people are throwing things around and you don’t even have to think about beauty,” says Kronthal-Sacco.
But the bigger, more damaging issue is that many beauty products that make their way to recycling centers end up in landfills anyway. That’s because of the seven different types of plastic, only one and two types (think: water bottles, milk jugs and shampoo bottles) can usually be recycled by municipal facilities. And no matter the type of plastic, if it is colored, small, or mixed with other materials such as metal or glass, it will not be recycled.
“The reason why products and packaging are not accepted through local recycling solutions has very little to do with the ability to recycle those products and packaging technically and instead has more to do with the economics behind it,” says Stephanie Moses, senior account director. at waste management company TerraCycle. Basically, recycling the first and second types is easy and cost-effective, meaning that recycling facilities can benefit from doing so. For other types, it’s the opposite – recycling centers will lose money trying to process them.
That’s why TerraCycle partners with brands to cover recycling costs. Private brands like Murad pay their customers directly to mail out their items while stores like Nordstrom allow consumers to drop off their containers. Then, they are broken down and reused into items such as storage bins, floor tiles, and outdoor furniture. But it’s hard enough to get consumers to drop things off in recycling bins. Getting them to put their trash in the mail or take it back to the store is a whole different challenge.
“The best case scenario is that TerraCycle wouldn’t have to exist because the infrastructure would be in place to provide recycling for all materials,” says Moses. “But the reality is that what we’re here to do is provide solutions where solutions don’t exist, based on where the world is.”
Considering that recycling these materials is a very difficult process, it seems like the best option would be to put beauty products in containers that are easy to recycle. But it’s not that easy. Some brands are doing this—OSEA and Alpyn Beauty, use glass containers, while brands like Eva NYC and Sándor keep their products in aluminum. However, the ability to do so is determined by various factors such as cost and type of product. For example, given that SPF stops working after a few hours of sun exposure, you probably don’t want it stored in a glass bottle. And the serum in plastic that is thin and malleable like a pop bottle is easy to grind, which may not last as well.
“There are properties with harder plastics that can reduce damage or pollution,” says Kronthal-Sacco. “It may also have to do with distribution, aesthetics, and technical challenges to produce a good package that can be reused.”
The next step
A few brands of refillable and recyclable mailers aren’t the end all – they still are long the way to go. We are beginning to see the seeds sown of what may, over time, turn into true systemic change, but for now, sustainable beauty remains an oxymoron.
“We can’t use our method sustainably. They’re different in nature,” says Davis. “I’m a sustainability expert in a space that sells things. So I get the tension there — I live that tension. But you can’t be like, ‘This is sustainable,’ if you’re making a product and putting it. If you’re packing a product, if you’re shipping ingredients around the world, you have an impact. for the planet and human health. What we need to do is have the most thoughtful, holistic, and transparent lens that we can have, to reduce the impact on the environment.”
That’s why Davis has taken all of his learnings from Credo and his 15 years in the industry to launch the Pact Collection, a group of 100 beauty brands working to make the industry as sustainable as possible. They unite packaging manufacturers, brands, retailers, consumers, and recycling facilities to try to work toward a common goal—no more products going to landfill.
“Beauty has a lot of work to do on the road to sustainability, but there’s also a lot of interest,” says Davis. “That’s very exciting.”
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