How much packaging do you have in your bathroom cabinet? Probably too much, considering a staggering 151 billion pieces of packaging—the majority of which is plastic—are produced by the beauty industry every year, according to market research analyst Euromonitor. Unfortunately, most of that packaging is still very difficult to recycle, or can’t be recycled altogether.
“A lot of beauty packaging is not really designed to go through a recycling process,” Sara Wingstrand, programme manager of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, tells Vogue. “Some packaging is made from materials that don’t even have a recycling stream, so will just go to landfill.”
Major beauty brands have now made commitments to tackle the industry’s plastics problem. L’Oréal has pledged to make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable or bio-based by 2030. Unilever, Coty and Beiersdorf have pledged to make sure plastic packaging is recycled, reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. Meanwhile, Estée Lauder has committed to making sure at least 75 per cent of its packaging is recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled or recoverable by the end of 2025.
Nevertheless, progress still feels slow, particularly as 8.3 billion tonnes of petroleum-derived plastic has been produced in total to date—60 per cent of which ends up in landfill or the natural environment. “If we really raised the ambition level on the elimination, reuse and recycling [of beauty packaging], we can actually make real progress and significantly improve the future that we’re moving towards,” Wingstrand says.
The challenges of recycling
Currently, only 14 per cent of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally—and only 5 per cent of that material is actually reused, due to losses during the sorting and recycling process. Beauty packaging often comes with extra challenges. “A lot of packaging is a mixture of different types of material that makes it hard to recycle,” Wingstrand explains, with pumps—usually made of a mix of plastics and an aluminium spring—being a prime example. “Some packaging is too small for the material to be extracted in the recycling process.”
REN Clean Skincare CEO Arnaud Meysselle says there’s no easy solution for beauty companies, particularly as recycling facilities differ so much around the world. “Unfortunately, even if you are fully recyclable, at best you [have] a 50 per cent chance of it being recycled,” he says via a Zoom call in London. That’s why the brand has shifted its emphasis away from recyclability and towards using recycled plastic for its packaging, “because at least you’re not creating new virgin plastic.”
However, REN Clean Skincare has become the first beauty brand to use new Infinity Recycling technology for its hero product, the Evercalm Global Protection Day Cream, which means that the packaging can be recycled over and over again using heat and pressure. “It’s a plastic, which is 95 per cent recycled, with the same specifics and characteristic of new virgin plastic,” Meysselle explains. “And on top of that, it can be recycled infinitely.” Currently, most plastic can only be recycled once or twice.
Of course, technologies such as Infinity Recycling still rely on the packaging to actually end up at the right facilities in order to be recycled. Brands such as Kiehl’s have taken collection into their own hands via in-store recycling schemes. “Thanks to our customers, we have recycled over 11.2m products globally since 2009, and we’re committed to recycling 11 million more by 2025,” says Kiehl’s global president Leonardo Chavez, via email from New York.
Easy lifestyle changes, such as having a recycling bin in your bathroom, can help too. “Usually people have one bin in the bathroom they put everything in,” Meysselle comments. “Trying to [get people] recycling in the bathroom is important to us.”
Moving towards a zero-waste future
Considering the challenges of recycling, it’s crucial that it’s not seen as the one and only solution to the beauty industry’s waste problem. That applies to other materials such as glass and aluminium, as well as plastic. “We shouldn’t just be relying on recycling our way out [of the issue],” Wingstrand says.
Even bio-based plastics, made out of the likes of sugar cane and cornstarch, are not an easy fix, despite often being described as biodegradable. “‘Biodegradable’ doesn’t have a standard definition; it just means that at some point in time, under some conditions, your packaging [will break down],” Wingstrand says. “‘Compostable’ specifies the conditions, but compostable plastics won’t degrade in all environments, so it might actually stay around for a long time. We need to think through the whole system.”
All this means that eliminating packaging where possible—which reduces the need for recycling and composting in the first place—is a key part of the puzzle. “Just taking away the plastic wrapping around the perfume box is a good example; it’s a problem that you never create if you remove that,” Wingstrand explains.
Reusing packaging is another solution, with refillables—where you keep the outer packaging, and buy the product that goes inside it when you’ve run out—being widely touted as the future of beauty packaging. “As a whole, we’ve seen our industry begin to embrace the idea of product refills, which involve significantly less packaging,” Chavez comments. “This is a big focus for us.”
The challenge? A lot of refills currently come in sachets, which themselves are not recyclable. “You have to make sure that in creating a refillable solution, you don’t create a refill that’s even less recyclable than the original packaging,” Wingstrand says. “So it’s about designing everything the whole way through.”
What’s clear is that there won’t be one silver bullet that solves the issue. Luckily though, we as consumers can help drive change by demanding more eco-friendly packaging, as that will force more companies to invest in innovative solutions. “The consumer response is amazing; we’ve been growing like a startup since we launched our sustainability programmes,” Meysselle comments, adding that all brands need to get on board in order to achieve a zero-waste future. “We cannot win on our own; it’s all about winning together.”