Many beauty brands are now labeling their standard plastic packaging as “sustainable” simply because it’s recyclable. But only nine percent of plastic gets recycled. Can this really be considered sustainable?​​​​​​​
There are so many fantastic skincare products available on the market today. And with the clean beauty revolution, brands are starting to use better ingredients and operate with a people and planet-first mindset.
But there’s still this one glaring issue that many brands continue to overlook — their packaging. Just about every beauty product on the market is in virgin plastic.
What does virgin plastic mean? Virgin plastic is a newly created plastic resin that does not contain recycled materials.
Think about every time a plant manufactures a new plastic bottle or tube. They use energy and resources, and carbon gets released into the atmosphere. Whereas, if brands used recycled plastic instead, which is plastic that is already in circulation, then it minimizes that output of new resources.
And I’m not saying that recycling is perfect, either. Resources get used, and carbon gets released in both instances. But using recyclable plastic takes a far smaller toll on the environment because it isn’t extracting anything new from the earth — *ahem* fossil fuels — which is how we get virgin plastic.
We also already have a ton of plastic in circulation. And it’s estimated that only nine percent of it gets recycled, even though a lot of it is recyclable. Twelve percent gets incinerated (which is terrible for the environment), and the other 79 percent has ended up in landfills and our oceans (1).
These days brands (and consumers) are obsessed with clean ingredients, and just about every new brand to enter the market is cruelty-free, which is fantastic.
But when a brand is still choosing to use virgin plastic, they’re essentially handing over the responsibility to their customers to recycle that plastic packaging.
As I just mentioned, only nine percent of plastics are recycled. And as you may have seen, when plastic packaging ends up in our oceans and landfills, it can harm animals anyway. So, in essence, is a brand truly cruelty-free if they’re still using virgin plastic?
I understand that we should all be responsible members of society and recycle. But when I came to live in the US in 2020, I learned that many counties don’t even have curbside recycling — because they don’t have the facilities. A report in 2020 found that only around 32% of recyclable materials get recovered in the US (2). So brands simply cannot — and should not — expect their customers to recycle.
Also, plastic loses its integrity the more it’s recycled. So even if we all recycle, plastic eventually degrades and needs to be disposed of somehow.
There isn’t a lot of awareness around this issue, and there isn’t a lot of accessibility to resources when it comes to recycling in the United States.
There are recycling facilities that partner with brands and offer services to brands’ customers. Companies like Terracycle® and PACT Collective take difficult-to-recycle packaging mailed into them, like sprayer tops and pumps, and they recycle them responsibly (4,5).
The issue is that not many know about these programs, it takes more effort to print the label and take the empty containers to the post office, and the programs aren’t free (understandably). It also isn’t as convenient.
What I believe brands need to be doing is finding other solutions for their packaging. Using alternatives, like glass and aluminum, could be an option. I know this isn’t always possible, as aluminum can’t hold liquids without rusting, and glass weighs more than plastic, which creates the issue of higher emissions during transportation and whatnot.
But aluminum gets recycled the most and only accounts for one percent of the US waste stream (3). And glass doesn’t harm sea life when it ends up in the ocean because it doesn’t float, so it can’t be mistaken for food. It can’t end up wrapped around an unsuspecting turtle. Glass is just sand, so even if it chips away into the ocean, it’s just going back from whence it came.
The beauty industry is one of the worst contenders for plastic packaging, so it’s great to see some innovation in this area. A few brands doing our planet a solid with their products are:
• River Organics
• Zerra & Co
• Āthr Beauty
• Meow Meow Tweet
Some makeup brands now use cardboard packaging for products, such as River Organics lip balms (6) and Zerra & Co’s mineral face powder (7). Cardboard is one of the easiest materials to recycle curbside, and if it’s FSC-certified cardboard, it’s an even more sustainable material.
Āthr Beauty is another brand leading the charge in more responsible packaging, with their magnet and mirror-free FSC certified cardboard eyeshadow palettes (8). And Meow Meow Tweet’s deodorant sticks come housed in plastic-free cardboard tubes (9).
I understand that other alternatives are usually more expensive for brands. But if we have indie startups on a budget that can invest in more sustainable packaging, I don’t understand why more prominent brands can’t do it.
As consumers, I think it’s crucial to consider the packaging of our products when purchasing. The truth about beauty packaging is that most brands need to be more considerate, and their packaging needs to be more sustainable. Some brands are doing their part to minimize the potential damage their packaging could do, and we can all do our part by supporting those brands and investing in a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest — Charles Moore.


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