There are over two million #Unboxing posts on Instagram. If half of them are of beauty products—a reasonable estimation—that would make one million pieces of content that focus on everything but the efficacy of the skincare, haircare or make-up product at hand. Think sensorial, ASMR splices of like cardboard boxes being sliced open, crackling packing pellets, sharp tears of paper stuffing, and little pops of bubble wrap that, when listened to with earphones, can get one tingling in all the right places. It’s a nest of excessive, often un-recyclable components, and that’s not even all (or the worst) of it. The actual products nestled within are housed in yet another box, jar, bottle or palette that’s either entirely or partially made of single-use, potentially landfill-clogging materials. beauty packaging
There’s no denying that the global beauty industry, which generates over US$500 billion in sales a year and accounts for millions of jobs, has a packaging problem. But it is trying to fix it.
According to data from the Zero Waste Week, the beauty and personal care industry produces a whopping 120 billion units of packaging each year. The pandemic exacerbated this issue, with online beauty hauls contributing to a 20 to 30 per cent rise in beauty e-commerce sales—and we all know how much more packaging is used to safely transport that soothing centella asiatica toner to your doorstep than it is for you to put it in your own eco-friendly bag if you bought it in store.
In response to accelerating digital sales, and thus escalating e-commerce retail waste, L’Oréal Singapore has launched its SustainaBox Initiative. This programme packs every online order from all of its brands—both via direct websites and partner platforms like Shopee and Lazada—into wholly sustainable parcels, comprising a carton box, Fastfil paper box stuffing, and paper tape that’s made of 100 per cent recycled, FSC-certified material. This reduces a significant amount of plastic waste without any airbags or adhesive tape. Checking even more eco-boxes is the beauty conglomerate’s electric vehicle delivery trial that started in April. Such greener transport produces 50 per cent less CO2 emissions than an average gas vehicle, and this is set to help the company minimise its carbon footprint as it begins to roll out products from its warehouse to 40 stores across west Singapore.
Working on a smaller, albeit growing and equally important scale is Oasis:, a Singaporean beauty company that specialises in locally crafted, sustainable personal care formulas and home cleaning goods. In-store, it encourages customers to bring in used packaging materials that will then be reused for new orders with an ‘I’m recycled’ sticker. This empowers people to participate in the business’s mission to reduce waste consumption. Creative Lead Iffah Yusof says: “This year, we are planning to launch a reforestation programme in which customers have the choice of using recycled packaging materials or new packing materials. The savings from using recycled packaging will then be directly transferred to Handprint, a local green technology start-up aiming to plant a tree for such transactions. We are also implementing zero-carbon delivery through our own bicycle delivery service to reduce our carbon footprint from our e-commerce orders.”
Inside the box
Beyond delivery, even more improvements have been made to product packaging. Google ‘sustainable packaging’ and the results are sure to include glass and metal, biodegradable paperboard, recyclable plastic, or any other form of compostable component as alternatives.
But such eco-conscious substitutes are much more complicated than just swapping jars—especially for industry giants with hundreds of products that have long been manufactured in non-recyclable containers. There are also other considerations like how glass and metal are endlessly recyclable, but if produced and imported from afar, may then negate any sustainability gains with the increase in carbon emissions. And not to mention the need for extra packaging due to their fragility to break or dent.
This has contributed to the rise of recycled plastics, namely polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is lightweight, shatterproof and highly recyclable; and post-consumer recycled (PCR) resin, made of recycled material from existing PET bottles and other plastics. Luxury to drugstore beauty brands are swiftly jumping on the bandwagon. Last year, YSL Beauty released the Hydra Bounce lotion which is 100 per cent recyclable, made of PET; Kiehl’s bestselling Calendula Herbal Extract toner comes bottled in 100 per cent PCR plastic—while over 80 per cent of all of the brand’s packaging are made with recycled materials; Garnier was one of the first brands to remove the inner plastic film (a hidden, albeit protective, villain in paper packaging used by countless brands); 85 per cent of Aveda’s jars and bottles are made using 100 per cent PCR materials while the remaining utilise bioplastic, which is 96 per cent derived from plants like sugarcane; and Dove is well on its way to replace all packaging with 100 per cent recycled plastic bottles, slated to reduce the use of virgin plastic by more than 20,5000 tonnes per year.
In a world-first, La Roche-Posay recently released its Anthelios Eco-Conscious Hydrating Lotion SPF50+. From its bestselling line of sunscreens, this comes housed in 200ml paper-based cosmetic tubes made of new bio-based and FSC-certified cardboard, reducing overall plastic content by 45 per cent compared to existing solutions. The remaining 55 per cent plays an essential role in protecting the formula and ensuring its water-resistance. This novel paperboard creation is the result of a year-long co-development process between the L’Oréal group and leading packaging firm, Albéa, and marks a significant first step into the companies’—and industry’s—transition from traditional materials to more innovative, eco-responsible variants.
For start-up beauty brands, however, such greener options may be too hard on profit margins to even think about, let alone prioritise. But Xenia Lim, founder of Sigi Skin, affirms that investing in a sustainable brand ethos as well as careful research and development will reap well-deserved returns. “Consumers are more eco-conscious than before and are willing to pay extra for sustainable options. Glass was one option raised, but since we’re shipping them from Korea to Singapore, the extra carbon emissions it takes due to a heavier weight does not make sense. Currently, our box packaging is made up of recycled paper and we only use soy-based inks, while product packaging is made of 100 per cent recycled materials. We are also looking at more biodegradable options. The Minis kit is packaged in d2w material, which is 100 per cent biodegradable.” Manufactured by Symphony Environmental, d2w technology turns ordinary plastic at the end of its service-life into biodegradable material. And even if these escape proper recycling and end up as litter, they will degrade without leaving toxic residue, serving as a food source for bacteria and fungi. This is a perfect example of plastic’s circularity potential, which is more of what the world needs.
What a waste
But are recyclable products getting the recycling treatment they deserve? Realistically, not even close. While brands and businesses make significant strides in sustainability, consumers, on the other hand, aren’t making enough efforts to help close the loop.
Many religiously keep track of the shelf life of a vitamin C serum, but carelessly toss their ‘empties’ into the trash or recycling bins without following the necessary steps. Not only do empty containers need to be thoroughly cleaned, they need to be dismantled to remove any non-recyclable components—like mixed material pumps or droppers—before going into a blue bin. If not, waste centres may deem these supposedly recyclable items unrecyclable. These could then end up in a landfill, where the packaging of a product that was used for just a few weeks, will continue polluting our oceans and waterways for decades.
“There seems to be a misconception here, where people believe plastic and its use is contrary and prohibitive to achieving sustainability. But in actuality, the environmental impact of plastic is lower than that of alternative materials, like bulky cardboard and weighty metal,” expresses Ashley Yong, founder of vegan skincare brand, Two Halves. “It is plastic waste that we don’t need, which stems from improper disposal. As long as plastic is responsibly recycled, it can be socially sustainable.”
Seeking to bridge this gap is nature-powered beauty brand, Re:erth, which boasts a Sustainability Corner at Design Orchard. Here, beauty lovers can drop off their empty skincare products from any brand to be fully recycled and converted to non-fossil-derived fuel via Environmental Solutions’ groundbreaking technology. This partnership programme has reaped multiple benefits since its launch in 2020, including “landfill diversion, using pyrolysis to recycle plastics instead of incinerating them; enhanced plastic circularity, by turning waste plastic into NewOil, which can be turned into a recycled chemical feedstock to create virgin quality plastics; and increasing the supply of sustainable fuel, for NewOil can be turned into a source of fuel for the transport industry”, states Re:erth’s COO, Ziling Toh. At lab prototype scale, Toh says that the brand’s “empties gave 70 per cent oil yield, which means that 10kg of empties will give us approximately seven kilograms of oil. The rest of the waste plastics become carbon black which has some recycling value—like being repurposed into road materials—or syngas, a thermal energy source that goes back to power the pyrolysis machine”.
The ‘R’ Word
Ultimately, beyond inventive initiatives to reuse and recycle—there really isn’t one perfect solution—and varying definitions of ‘sustainable packaging’, the one true way to effectively reduce packaging waste is simply for consumers to, well, consume less. This brings us to the final ‘r’ in our quest for more eco-friendly products: refill. From Rouge Dior lipsticks, Kiehl’s Refill-A-Bottle programme and Hermès’s new H24 fragrance, to Oasis:’s full stable of Earth-friendly products and incentive-driven refillable, replenishable options are steadily infiltrating beauty shelves, making a more productive, and engaging, impact on the industry as a whole.
Two Halves’ Yong adds: “The reduction of our carbon footprint is a crucial aspect of sustainability, but our rate of consumption outpaces the ability of our resources to recover. Unfortunately, recycling isn’t straightforward. It requires the use of transportation, fuel and various other resources, which is ironically also consumption. Therefore, only by consuming mindfully, may we reduce waste and work towards sustainability.”