How to Recycle Your Beauty Packaging

Are you confused about recycling your beauty packaging? Do you wonder if you’re doing it right, or if 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’m going to talk about the recycling issues we face everyday; I’ll explain the ways we can and can’t recycle beauty packaging; and I will highlight 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 in fact recyclable, and a sustainable option.


The top materials used in beauty packaging are:

  • Plastic
  • Glass
  • Metal
  • Cardboard


Plastic

Plastic was originally a word that meant “pliable and easily shaped”. Then in 1869, John Wesley Hyatt invented the first plastic-like material that was designed to be a substitute for ivory. It was made up of cellulose—a fiber found in cotton, and camphor (5). From there, plastic evolved 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 been paying attention to environmental news, you’ll know there is a microplastics epidemic in our landscapes, oceans, seafood, and microplastics have recently been discovered in human placentas (1). It’s estimated that we dump 8.8 million tons of plastic into our oceans every year, with 700 marine animals facing extinction due to microplastics (4). 


There hasn’t been enough studies done—nor has enough time passed—for scientists to understand the health implications this is going to cause humans, 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 out with all good intentions—a substitute for ivory and a way to slow the taking of precious resources from our environment—has now 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.


There are six types of plastics that are commonly used for packaging. These are:

  • 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, number 2 recycling symbol; and PET plastic, with a number 1 recycling symbol. 


PP is resistant to chemicals and solvents, hence it’s popularity for packaging skincare. It wasn’t until recent years that PP was able to be recycled. Even still, some cities still won’t recycle PP. This is likely part of the reason why only 3% of PP actually 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 are eventually discarded. 



Glass

Glass is a naturally-occuring substance in our environment—made from sand. It is forever recyclable, it never loses its integrity, and is classed as a renewable resource. It’s also completely safe to use in any setting, and can withstand heat (to an extent), which makes it a great 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 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).


This graph from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows how we’ve handled glass over the last 60 years. Since 1990, our recycling of glass hasn’t improved much. There are predictions that we may run out of resources (sand) in the future 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 is going to be higher. But there are no perfect options, and I believe that glass is still a much more sustainable option than plastic.


Metal

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 in particular 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, to be perfectly honest, this isn’t 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 as long as you keep the exterior dry, I don’t see how it can rust. You can easily recycle these, too. 



Cardboard

With the zero waste movement, we’re seeing much more in the way of 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 just 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.


River Organics have a complete range of makeup housed in cardboard tubes. Their blush sticks and lip balms are my favorite from their range. 


And Axiology is another responsible beauty brand. They have designed Balmies, a lip-to-lid makeup crayon that comes wrapped in compostable paper, and housed in a cardboard box designed by a female collective in Bali.



Something we need to be aware of is when brands state that their packaging is “recyclable” in order to appeal to more conscious consumers. “Recyclable” doesn’t mean it definitely gets recycled. Recyclable means that it can be recycled. But only 9% of all plastics have been recycled in the world, and as mentioned earlier, plastic is not forever recyclable. So when brands use this statement, in a sense, they’re kind of greenwashing. 



How to Recycle

Every precinct and county is going to have varying rules on what they can and cannot recycle. But here are some general guidelines to follow, although it will be best to check with your local municipality to confirm these guidelines, as some cities don’t recycle at all, some may only take certain items, and some may recycle most items.


If a product has the universal recycle symbol (triangle of chasing arrows with no numbers), then 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 used to be told to remove lids from jars and bottles, but the guidelines have changed and most rules state to keep the lids on as the technology at facilities are now able to 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.


For glass, metal, and cardboard, these can all be easily recycled. Just put them into the recycling with their lids on, and I always like to make sure they’re fairly 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.



Independent Recyclers

There are a few independent recycling companies out there who have been founded in order to help with the beauty packaging waste problem. Here are two:


Terracycle®

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 some conflicting stories on the transparency of Terracycle’s recycling protocols (7). However, they are one of the only  independent beauty recycling companies out there at the moment.


PACT Collective

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 carpet 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 that you select when you buy your satchel, so it actually doesn’t cost you anything. Then simply add up to 10 hard-to-recycle packaging items—like pumps and sprayers, and then send it off to Pact. It’s that easy!



Conclusion

The world of recycling shouldn’t be that complicated. But things are slowly starting to evolve, and we’re seeing more accessibility in the way of recycling options for beauty packaging. Hopefully this article gives you a little clarity on how you can recycle your beauty packaging, so you can help close the loop on hard-to-recycle packaging for good!


Emma Masotti is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and 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.

 

Some of the products promoted in our blog are from our online store. Many others are brands we have researched and found to be great examples of sustainable, ethical, and innovative brands in their field, and we don't make any profit from mentioning them in our blog. #CollaborationOverCompetition


  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33395930/
  2. https://www.grida.no/resources/6911
  3. https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/promo-university/different-types-of-plastic.htm
  4. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/crushplastic/
  5. https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics
  6. https://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/glass
  7. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/22598748/terracycle-greenwashing-recycling-lawsuit