According to Zero Waste Week, more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced globally every year by the cosmetics industry, most of which are not recyclable contributing to loss of 18 million acres of forest annually. The personal care industry is worth $500 billion per year. Cosmetics packaging are produced, and mostly for one-time use. Empty containers are often too small for recycling, and mixed-material items end up going straight to a landfill even the ones you attempt to recycle. Makeup is arguably the most complicated category due to the mixed materials used in every product – for example, if your compact has a mirror, it is headed for landfill.
Put simply, just because your shampoo bottle is recyclable doesn’t mean it will be recycled. According to the recycling company TerraCycle, the global cosmetics industry produces 120bn units of packaging every year, and few are accepted by kerbside recycling programmes. “Many of the design technologies that make personal care and beauty products so squeezable, twistable, portable and generally easy to use render them difficult to recycle,” says its European head of communications, Stephen Clarke. “The more complex or costly the packaging, the harder it is to collect, separate and recycle. As a result, it makes it more economically viable to simply trash it than put forth the resources to recover it.”
What’s perhaps more frightening is that a lot of the plastic we use ends up in the ocean through litter, transport errors and through our sewer systems. In fact, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates there’ll be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. At current estimates between 5.1 million and 13.9 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year.
In fact, UNESCO ( United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) reports that plastic debris causes the death of more than 100,000 marine mammals and more than a million seabirds per year. Not to mention the microplastics that are ingested by fish that travel up the food chain to us. Ocean Conservancy working with the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment has estimated that there is already over 165 million tons of plastic in the ocean.
Damages of Microplastic
Let me begin with the smallest beauty terror that harms our environment — microplastic. Microplastics are polluting oceans and harming wildlife—and your beauty products could be part of the problem. They comprise of plastic particles that are smaller than five millimeters in diameter, manufactured polyethylene plastic. In the form of a microbead or a plastic fiber, these particles are added as exfoliants in cleansers, cosmetics, and personal care products, such as toothpaste and soap.
Water filtering systems are not designed to sift elements smaller than five millimeters. Therefore, the particles contaminate water in oceans and end up being consumed by fish, birds, and marine animals. Microplastics also cause damage to humans and widely found in bottled waters which could potentially contribute to cancer risks once consumed. Non-biodegradable glitter also adds to the build-up of microplastics in our oceans. Glitter is still plastic and since it goes down the drain, scientists found it to be the highest concentration to of dangerous to sea life.
According to Jonathan Whitney, PhD, a researcher with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration on Pearl Harbor military base, microplastics are showing up in dead larval fish. He has discovered microbeads from beauty products in the bellies of dead larval fish.
“They’re outnumbering the fish we’re finding in some of these samples,” Dr. Whitney says. “It’s been shocking.” Whether or not it’s this last meal of plastic shards that kills the baby fish, we don’t yet know, but he and his team have learned one odd fact: fish gobble up blue plastic the most. “About 75% of the ones that we’re finding are blue, which is consistent with what other [researchers] are finding in other species,” he says. “We think that it’s because that’s what a lot of their prey look like.” Although the US was the first country to ban microbeads, followed by the UK, France, Canada, Taiwan, Italy, New Zealand, and many other countries, the marine science community is now left to determine the long-term damage of microbeads. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean. There is a multitude of natural alternatives to microplastic such as:
Ground fruit kernels
What’s inside that package?
When you order beauty products online, it arrives wrapped in more plastic aside from bubble wrap inside box. In 1919, it was a $60 million industry in the U.S. By 1938, it became a $400 million. By the 1970s, it reached as a billion-dollar industry. The number and variety of products exploded—and along with the products came vast new amounts of packaging. The amount of plastic packaging on U.S. products (not just on personal care items) has increased by over 120 times since 1960—with almost waste piling up in landfills. The packaging industry for beauty and personal care products, which primarily reflects plastic packaging, makes up nearly $25 billion in sales.
Often beauty products will be packaged in swathes of cellophane, cardboard, tissue paper and boxes. Containers and packaging are used in the shipping, storage and protection of cosmetic products. They also provide sales and marketing benefits. Undoubtedly, packaging plays a huge part in the allure of a new beauty purchase.
Health and beauty products are meant to be eye-catching to make consumers want to buy it as to where the package is more pertinent than its ingredients. Brands often wrap, ship, and display products with unnecessary materials like paper, plastic, glitter, stickers, and bags all in the name of branding.
Decades ago, the beauty industry wasn’t a threat to the environment where products like glass shampoo bottles and refillable compacts were the norm, but it all changed mid-century when plastic manufacturing became widespread. Easy to produce, durable, and most importantly, cheap. In 1926, the Lever company (which would later become Unilever) kicked off an ad campaign outlining the damage “body odor” could do to one’s career and social prospects. The market for face creams, cosmetics, and other personal care products marketed to women increased in result of the rise of Hollywood movies and the invention of American glamour and beauty standards. During World War II, the U.S. government went so far as to declare lipstick a “wartime necessity,” a critical component of cultural life and morale-building. Soaps came in bar form. Perfumes, a symbol of luxury, were packaged in elaborate glass containers. Hair-care products were powders or pomades packaged in tins or jars.
Every year, 120 billion units of cosmetics packaging are produced, and mostly for one-time use. Empty containers are often too small for recycling, and mixed-material items end up going straight to a landfill. Meanwhile, many of the beauty products purchased often sit unused or outdated gathering dust and eventually ending up as trash—replaced with fresh new updated items from the store. Think about the purchases you make in
Ulta and Sephora to later return, because these items are considered “damaged” they go directly to trash to prevent dumpster divers in the resell of returned products. The products are destroyed and thrown in the trash to make it non sellable.
Humans have created more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics — and 91% of it hasn’t been recycled. What’s more, 70% of plastic waste is estimated to end up in the ocean or in landfills, where it takes over 400 years to decompose. This means that by 2050, there will be more pounds of plastic in the ocean than fish.
Disposable razors with multiple blades are no good, single-use razors are even worse.
Consumer giants like P&G* have begun testing out refillable products to help prevent the use of plastics by using pod-refill technology. Anitra Marsh, associate director of sustainability for P&G Beauty, said women in their 20s and 30s—may be more worried about the environmental impact of what they buy. The goal “is to have more products that are recyclable, reusable and refillable,” Marsh said.
Other brands like Humankind, are entirely focused on refillable products. The online brand only sells eco-friendly health and beauty items in recyclable packaging, including mouthwash tablets, refillable deodorant and shampoo bars.
Brian Bushell, a co-founder, said the company is “combating the global crisis of single-use plastic in all of our product categories.” The paper-pod refill system for its deodorant eliminates about 90% of single-use plastic associated with common deodorant dispensers, he said. “Consumers are craving ways to make more responsible choices,” he said. “Not only for themselves—but also for our planet.” Bushell said
Another aspect of health and beauty that causes damage to the environment is the marketing of new products. The fact that 80% of existing purchased products aren’t actively used but rather ignored over new ones through social media promotion has caused an environmental awareness.
Look for these ingredients on the back of the product:
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
The Future of Ecobeauty
Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “New Plastics Economy” has been rallying businesses and governments behind this common vision of a circular economy for plastic. The vision is supported by three key actions: eliminate, innovate, circulate.
Companies have already pledge to make 100 percent of their packaging reusable, refillable, or compostable by 2025, and to source 50 percent of that packaging from recycled material. You will be surprised how easy it is to replace your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one but make sure the bristles are made of other material than nylon or other plastic, sheet masks with natural mud masks, and makeup remover cloths or composable Konjac sponges instead of single-use wipes
The Alliance to End Plastic Waste aims to accelerate waste management and scale new solutions to minimize and correctly manage plastic waste to move from a linear to a circular economy. They recommend to:
- Consider the life cycle of your purchases and stop purchasing single-use plastic beauty items.
- Choose products in reusable or recyclable packaging and take advantage of refill schemes and recycling initiatives.
- Look out for labels such as Rainforest Alliance Certified, ECOCERT, and Fairtrade to make sure the ingredients are sustainably sourced too.
- Take time to read the labels to avoid dangerous microplastic particles.
- Replace short life cycle plastic items such as plastic shower sponges by a natural option like the plant-based loofah.
If you like to sparkle here and there, consider products that use synthetic mica, a sparkly but biodegradable alternative.
Some brands have made efforts to reduce single-use plastic packaging by switching to PCR (post-consumer recycled) material, or alternatives to plastics like aluminum bottles and recycled and recyclable plastic, including 20% marine plastics sourced through TerraCycle. The bottle is a slightly unappealing grey color as a result. By 2025, Unilever** will collect and process more plastic packaging than they sell, will reduce the use of virgin plastic by 50% and plastics will be reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
Consumers also have to be careful with which products are actually green since a brand might create a nature-inspired formulation of shampoo or body wash by simply adding a few drops of an organic or plant-based extract so it can be labeled as ‘natural’ or ‘botanical’ to the label. The product is designed in a way that’ll sell the “natural” message, when in reality it may end up in our environment the one these companies claim to care about.
Be aware that ingredients also cause damage to the environment. About 14,000 tons of sunscreen is collected in the world’s reefs each year caused by the chemical waste from the beauty industry that’s washed out to the ocean.
Join the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement in sharing ideas and efforts to cut back on plastic.
*P&G Statement: We do not test our products on animals anywhere in the world unless required by law, and we are working hard to make animal testing of all consumer products obsolete. We are a proud supporter of #BeCrueltyFree and we’ve invested more than $420 million in developing non-animal testing methods and have advocated for their approval by policy makers around the world. Today, we use more than 50 non-animal alternatives, half of which were invented or co-invented by P&G. We will continue to work with partners like the Humane Society International and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to promote the development of new alternatives and advocate for their public use and adoption to eliminate animal testing.
**Unilever supports calls for a worldwide animal testing ban on cosmetics by 2023, and work with regulators, NGOs and suppliers across the world to increase the acceptance of non-animal approaches. Their long-term investment in non-animal safety science has enabled some of their brands to be certified by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as ‘PETA-approved’, including Dove, Suave, St Ives, Simple, Sunsilk, Zendium, The Good Stuff, Emerge, Love Beauty and Planet, Love Home and Planet & Cafuné.
Unilever Statement: We do not test our products on animals and are committed to ending animal testing. We use a wide range of non-animal approaches to evaluate the safety of our products for consumers, our workers and the environment. We also develop ‘next generation’ safety assessment approaches that do not rely on new animal data. Our scientists regularly participate in discussions with regulators and scientists in China to increase the use of non-animal approaches to safety. Across our wider product portfolio, some of the ingredients we use have to be tested by our suppliers to comply with legal and regulatory requirements in some markets; and some governments test certain products on animals as part of their regulations.