Are you confused about recycling your beauty packaging? Do you wonder if you're doing it right or your recycling efforts are even worth it? You're not alone.
With recycling being done differently in every precinct across the nation, it's no wonder many of us have no idea what we're doing. But this inconsistency causes big problems for our environment.
In this article, I'll discuss the recycling issues in the US. I'll also explain how we can and can't recycle beauty packaging, highlighting some solutions that may work for you.
Packaging Materials Used in Beauty
It's likely that you already know all the different kinds of packaging used in the beauty industry. But I want to point out each material and whether they are recyclable and a sustainable option.
The top materials used in beauty packaging are:
Plastic was originally a word that meant "pliable and easily shaped." Then in 1869, John Wesley Hyatt invented the first plastic-like material designed as a substitute for ivory. It was made from cellulose—a fiber found in cotton and camphor (5). Plastic kept evolving into the many kinds of plastics we use today.
Due to plastics being lightweight, cheap, and durable, they have been the most common material to use for just about everything. But, if you've read the news, you'll know we have a microplastic epidemic in our landscapes, oceans, seafood. Microplastics have even recently been discovered in human placentas (1). We dump 8.8 million tons of plastic into our oceans every year, with 700 marine animals facing extinction due to microplastics (4).
There haven't been enough studies done—nor has enough time passed—for scientists to understand the health implications this will cause humans in the long term. Certain plastics have been known to leach toxic chemicals into our food when heated, so who's to say what's going to happen to us if we have microplastics coursing through our systems?
Something that started with all good intentions—a substitute for ivory and a way to slow the taking of precious resources from our environment—has become a real problem for our environment. Oh, the irony!
There's a sudden urgency on reducing our plastic usage, so it at least slows the microplastic problem. But sadly, we'll never be able to undo the damage that has already been done. There is little evidence that supports microplastics ever fully breaking down in the environment (2), so it's safe to assume microplastics are here to stay.
These are six types of plastics commonly used for packaging.
- High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
- Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET, PETE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS)
- Polyvinyl Chloride ((PVC, Vinyl)
The most commonly used plastic for cosmetics is PP plastic, with a number 5 recycling symbol; HDPE, a number 2 recycling symbol; and PET plastic, a number 1 recycling symbol.
PP is resistant to chemicals and solvents, so it's popular for skincare packaging. It wasn't until recent years that PP was able to be recycled. Even still, some cities still won't recycle PP. And only 3% of PP gets recycled (3).
HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic. This plastic can be fully recycled, but the fact that only 12% does is a real cause for concern (3).
PET plastic makes up 96% of all plastic containers and bottles in various industries, including beverage and food industries. This plastic can be recycled, but only 25% of all PET plastics make it to recycling (3).
The problem with recycling plastics is that they are not forever recyclable. They degrade each time they are recycled and eventually need to be discarded or repurposed into something more permanent.
Glass is a naturally-occurring substance in our environment—made from sand. It is forever recyclable, never loses its integrity. It's also completely safe to use in any setting and can withstand heat (to an extent), making it an excellent option for beauty products.
There are a couple of issues with glass being used as packaging. The first being that, just like plastics, not all glass gets recycled. If the glass is broken when it gets to the facility, it won't be recycled. Not all kinds of glass can be recycled, either. Like certain colored glass, wine glasses, and computer monitor screens, just to name a few (6).
Since 1990, our recycling of glass hasn't improved much. There are predictions that we may run out of resources (sand) if we don't get more serious about recycling glass.
The second issue is weight. Glass is heavier than other materials. This means the cost of freight and the impact on logistical emissions will be higher. But there are no perfect options, and I believe that glass is still a much more sustainable option than plastic.
The third material we sometimes see in beauty packaging is metal—usually aluminum or stainless steel. Both metals can be recycled indefinitely without losing their quality, and aluminum is very lightweight.
A couple of things to note with aluminum is, it can rust. I have a few jars of skincare that are glass with aluminum lids, and while I love these products and love that they don't use plastic, the aluminum lids are beginning to rust on the inside. But this shouldn't be a dealbreaker.
Then there are products like Meow Meow Tweet's Shampoo and Conditioner Powders. They come housed in a metal bottle. The products are waterless, so I don't see how they can rust as long as you keep the exterior dry. You can easily recycle these, too.
With the zero waste movement, we're seeing much more in cardboard packaging that can be composted or recycled, as it is far easier to recycle than other materials. While not ideal for liquids, cardboard works fine for many other products.
Āthr Beauty designed the very first zero-waste makeup palette. They are made without mirrors or magnets—elements that make a makeup palette non-recyclable; the trays are aluminum, and the palettes are made from FSC certified paper. Just pop the aluminum trays out, and recycle each piece separately.
And Axiology is another responsible beauty brand. They have designed Balmies, a lip-to-lid makeup crayon wrapped in compostable paper and housed in a cardboard box designed by a female collective in Bali.
We need to be aware of when brands state that their packaging is "recyclable" to appeal to more conscious consumers. "Recyclable" doesn't mean it gets recycled. Recyclable means that it can be recycled. But only 9% of all plastics have been recycled globally, and as mentioned earlier, plastic is not forever recyclable. So when brands use this statement, in a sense, they're greenwashing.
How to Recycle
Every precinct and county will have varying rules on what they can and cannot recycle. But here are some general guidelines to follow. However, it will be best to check with your local municipality to confirm these guidelines. Some cities may recycle most items, some may only take certain items, and some may not recycle.
Suppose a product has the universal recycle symbol (triangle of chasing arrows with no numbers). It doesn't necessarily mean it will be recycled, but it is advised to still recycle that item instead of putting it into the trash. We were told to remove lids from jars and bottles, but the guidelines have changed. Most rules state to keep the lids on as the technology at facilities can now separate the lids.
For your plastic beauty packaging, you should generally be able to recycle in curbside recycling if it has the recycle symbol 1, 2, or 5. Just keep the lids on, as just stated.
Glass, metal, and cardboard can all be easily recycled. Just put them into the recycling with their lids on, and I always like to make sure they're clean, if possible.
For the items that don't have the plastic recycling symbols 1, 2, or 5, or if they contain different symbols, you can sometimes recycle with independent companies, but you usually can't put them into your curbside recycling.
A few independent recycling companies exist to help with the beauty packaging waste problem. Here are two:
This company was founded in 2001 in New Jersey. Many beauty brands, like L'Occitane, Garnier, and Herbal Essences, have partnered with Terracycle to offer recycling of difficult-to-recycle beauty packaging to their customers. There have been conflicting stories on Terracycle's recycling protocols (7). However, they are one of the only independent beauty recycling companies out there.
A newer kid on the block, PACT is doing something similar to Terracycle, where they take difficult beauty packaging and recycle it through programs with beauty brands and retailers. Old packaging at PACT goes into these four categories:
- Made into other products, like carpets and pallets
- Downcycled into asphalt, etc.
- Chemically recycled to build something else
- Waste to energy (burned), if a product is not able to be recycled
PACT appears to have far more transparency, which we believe is futile in this industry. You just purchase a return satchel from PACT for $5 to cover shipping, but you'll then receive a $5 voucher to spend with the brand you select when you buy your satchel, so it doesn't cost you anything. Then add up to ten hard-to-recycle packaging items—like pumps and sprayers, and then send it off to PACT. It's that easy!
The world of recycling shouldn't be that complicated. And things are slowly starting to evolve, as we're seeing more accessibility in recycling options for beauty packaging. Hopefully, this article clarifies how you can recycle your beauty packaging, so you can help close the loop on hard-to-recycle packaging for good!
Emma Jade has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn't cost the Earth.
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