Skip to main content

Beauty and Its Recycling Problem

A key to the industry’s sustainability drive, recycling remains a highly complex issue.

PARIS — Recycling — a key tenet of sustainability — is still in its nascent phase for the beauty industry.

“We can’t compete on sustainability,” said beauty veteran Victor Casale, who knows whereof he speaks.

The executive is formerly of MAC Cosmetics, which was begun by his family and where Casale ran the brand’s recycling program as chief chemist and managing director 30 years ago. That’s when MAC became a pioneer in a take-back packaging program, rewarding consumers with a product for returning their empty packaging to the brand.

“My role, because I was the operations guy, was to get it recycled,” said Casale. “Fast-forward, and nothing really has happened [recycling-wise in beauty].”

Hence, he recently cofounded vegan and eco-minded cosmetics brand Mob Beauty. All of its products are reusable and refillable, and each element is sold separately. Casale thought, instead of doing a take-back program just for Mob, he’d operate it for the entire industry.

Related Galleries

The program, dubbed Pact Collective, was cofounded with Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact at Credo Beauty. The nonprofit intends to service the beauty industry and help reduce toxic pollution in the environment. It was piloted with Credo in the U.S. and HBC in Canada, launching on Earth Day in April 2021.

You May Also Like

“We felt we needed to do something as an industry, as non-competing members,” said Casale.

One year in, and Pact Collective now has more than 100 members, including about 70 brands, eight retail partners, 50 nonprofits and numerous media outlets.

“We share initiatives on sustainability, technology, ideas,” Casale said, adding that’s from the design phase through consumer selling. “Recycling is one of the solutions. I see this as a holistic problem, like everything.”

As such, change needs to be implemented on all levels.

“It’s not just the plastic packaging,” said Casale, naming also suppliers, brands, retailers, consumers, media — the whole supply chain.

Pact Collective started with recycling, since it’s tangible.

“We see it, it’s in the news, it’s physical,” said Casale. “It is like the water cooler — we put the water cooler up, and people are gathering around it.

“What we’re doing is we’re educating our membership, the industry and the community at large,” he continued. “What is actually recyclable, what is not recyclable, what you can actually put in your curb-side bin. We’re taking the stuff that we can recycle, but won’t go into the curb-side bin or garbage.”

Pact Collective has made accessible a list of what local municipalities can take — and what cannot be recycled, such as empty nail-polish bottles.

“Usually, packaging has different kinds of materials, and usually that means that the products are not recyclable,” explained Maud Lelièvre, marketing and communication director at packaging supplier Cosmogen.

Packaging laminated with foil or metalized, or that is smaller than one’s fist, often can’t be recycled, either. So there’s a move toward monomaterial products.

Cosmogen’s bestsellers take a two-in-one approach, with a recyclable, refillable monomaterial container and a reusable applicator. There is, for instance, the Squeez’N tube with an On/Off closure system. Recently launched by the company is the patented Stick ReUse, billed to be the only stick packaging combining four benefits: It is monomaterial (PP), recyclable, watertight and reloadable. Fifty-six percent of plastic is saved with each refill.

A unified voice is key in spreading the message of sustainability — and the need to recycle.

“We are brand-agnostic,” said Casale.

TerraCycle, meanwhile, offers brand-sponsored programs, which are free to consumers. Julien Tremblin, general manager of TerraCycle Europe, sees progress on the recycling front.

“More and more brands are moving to environmentally friendly and easier-to-recycle packaging, as awareness of the waste crisis grows,” he said. “At the same time, we’re seeing government-led changes on a global scale, with new regulations being introduced designed to combat the waste crisis. No industry is immune to these — beauty included.”

He cited as an example the Law Against Waste for a Circular Economy in France. That sweeping legislation will ban the destruction of cosmetics and require they be reused, redistributed or recycled.

Legislation varies around the world, and sometimes even on a region-by-region basis. By 2030, the European Union aims to ensure that all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner, for instance.

“The European laws are so complex,” said Julien Lesage, founder of Hub.cycle, which upcycles fruit and vegetable waste into raw materials for the personal care and food industries.

Hub.cycle, which just raised 3.5 million euros in a second funding round, has as part of its activities the recovery of water from evaporation in the juice concentration process. Yet, since there is no law allowing for that liquid to be called “water” — or anything specifically — it’s not usable.

“We will [have to] keep throwing away like 1,000 tons a day per factory of water, just because nobody knows what to call it,” said Lesage.

Ditto for honey coming from stingless bees, since the EU only recognizes honey produced by bees with stingers.

In such a complex environment, packaging supplier Aptar became member of Spice, the sustainable packaging initiative for cosmetics.

“Even if we are not a brand owner, our goal is to work closely with this kind of organization to have a really clear idea of what are the guidelines, their recommendations,” said Bénédicte Luisi, product sustainability director B&H at Aptar. “We are running some recycling assessments on our own packaging to inform and help our customers.”

Aptar also relies on assessments and guidance from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“Our main concern is to try and find the right balance between what the recyclers are requesting — the simplification of packaging, trying to have some decoration compatible with their stream and so on — and the premium brands that want to keep their identity, the decoration and fancy packaging. There is a huge gap to close,” she said.

Casale agreed: “Our industry for the last 50 years or more has projected, marketed, educated — subliminally, overtly, covertly — that preciousness means shiny, heavy and lots of intricacy. That’s beautiful, that is luxury, and that goes against sustainability.”

A shift might take a generation or two, he believes, explaining: “People need to hold something in their hand that is made of molded fiber that can be composted, in a beautiful package, and say: ‘Look what I’ve got.’ Nobody does that now.”

Today, research-and-development briefs and supply models tend to avoid risks, said Lesage.

“Upcycling, recycling by definition is a kind of risk, because you’re based on finished resources,” he said. “You’re working on a waste deposit. If there is no more waste, there is no more product. So, it’s a big cultural jump. Companies don’t like this on a routine basis, because they want to be sure that supply is always there to match the demand. It will change in the upcoming months and years.”

“There isn’t really any such thing as truly ‘unrecyclable’ packaging,” said Tremblin. “It’s a question of economics.”

Unquestionably, recycling is a challenge.

“It’s challenging, but at the same time it’s a source of innovation, because we have to think differently — which is a good exercise,” said Lelièvre.

For more, see:

EXCLUSIVE: Warby Parker Demos ‘First-of-Its-Kind’ Recycling Feat

Top Cities for Beauty Plastic Recycling

The Beauty of Recycling