Skip to main content

How Beauty Is Trying to Solve Its Plastic Problem

In an industry known for single-use plastic packaging, beauty companies are doing some sustainable rethinking.

The beauty industry has a bad reputation when it comes to sustainability, and a lot of that is because of the sector’s dependence on single-use plastic packaging.

The numbers are staggering — the cosmetics industry produces about 120 billion units of plastic-containing packaging a year, according to Zero Waste Week, an awareness campaign in the U.K. And after 60 years of global plastic production, only about 9 percent of the collective 8.3 billion metric tons has been successfully recycled, according to a study by Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society.

It’s unclear how much of that successfully recycled plastic has come from the beauty industry, but the industry’s penchant for housing tinctures in bottles made from multiple materials means the packaging is often tough to recycle, according to TerraCycle’s Gina Herrera, senior director of brand partnerships. 

Related Galleries

“The easiest rule to follow is that the more materials — plastics, glass, metals — that compose your beauty product packaging, the lesser chance it is recyclable in your blue bin. This is because it can be too costly, in regard to both time and money, to separate and process,” Herrera said.

Even when consumers diligently separate parts, some recycling programs won’t take them, and single-material packaging still has to be rinsed of residual product in order to avoid the landfill. 

On the production end, Marc Rosen, a packaging designer for luxury beauty, said that he’s started to see manufacturers move toward using fewer components, less glue and looking toward materials that are recyclable or biodegradable. “Cosmetics brands are challenging [manufacturers] with ways they can give the consumer beautiful packaging that can be recycled, or that is sustainable,” Rosen said.

As sustainability becomes a bigger issue with their end consumers, beauty companies across the board are starting to take sustainable packaging more seriously — Unilever and L’Oréal, for example, have both said they will make all packaging reusable, refillable or compostable by 2025. This week, Procter & Gamble launched deodorants in paper tubes instead of plastic. Many brands have inked recycling partnerships with TerraCycle or started experimenting with post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR), soy alternatives, aluminum and recycled glass in order to reduce plastic waste. 

Sasha Plavsic, founder of Ilia Beauty, has turned to TerraCycle to “recycle the hard to recycle,” she said. The clean beauty brand offers customers the ability to return five used products a month, whether they’re Ilia Beauty goods or not, which the company then sends to TerraCycle. “They will responsibly break all those plastics. There are so many parts to products that need to be broken apart properly in order to be disposed of,” said Plavsic.

Ilia Beauty recently had a revamp, which includes removing metalization from its packaging. “That step alone saves time on the production front and is better as a process to recycle when you’re finished with it,” she added. Products are composed of recycled aluminum, glass and PETG, a recyclable plastic. “But even when making a product out of all recycled plastic, the parts are too small, so if you put that totally recycled product into a recycling bin when you’re finished, it’s not going to get recycled.”

At Michelle Pfeiffer’s Henry Rose, the brand’s fragrances are housed in glass that is 90 percent recycled — “there’s only one company in the world who makes that,” said chief executive officer Melina Polly — with a soy-based cap. 

While much of the brand’s packaging is sustainable, the straw that draws the fragrance through the atomizer is made of plastic, Polly said. The company has looked for alternatives, but hasn’t found any that are compatible with its product, she said. 

“The assumption is that if you go for something environmentally friendly…that you automatically compromise on the aesthetics,” Polly said, noting that Henry Rose aims to marry luxury product with environmental goals in order to help it become “the norm.”

“Every company should be thinking about it that way,” Polly said.

For UpCircle Beauty, which uses leftover natural ingredients like coffee grounds for its affordable product line, the packaging — which is now 99 percent plastic-free — has evolved over time. “Packaging is my biggest point of frustration as a beauty brand owner,” said Anna Brightman, founder. “It’s what gives the beauty industry it’s bad reputation for sustainability.” 

“Plastic, a little bit like palm oil, just has a terrible reputation in the minds of consumers…it’s easier from a brand perspective to be able to say that we minimize our use of plastic as much as we possibly can,” Brightman continued. “In the U.K, there was a huge switch after the television show ‘Planet Earth,’ which literally captured the hearts and minds across the country.” 

For the April 1 launch of Super Garden CBD Shampoo & Conditioner, R + Co rolled out 55 percent PCR bottles. The rest of R + Co. products will be transferred into PCR “as fast as we can sell products and reorder them in PCR,” said R + Co. president Dan Langer.

“The goal is to get it to 100 percent, but currently there are limitations around what we can do with our packaging manufacturers because we still have to have functional products — things that squeeze, things that don’t break if they fall in the shower,” Langer said.

He anticipates R + Co.’s switch to PCR will help create “a marketplace for recycled plastics,” he said.

“Up until now, it was hard to source the amount of plastic that you needed in any type of efficient way from recycled materials, but if we start using the plastic and then the bottles we have are 100 percent recyclable, and those go back into this virtuous circle of becoming recycled plastic, not only are we just providing the PCR for our customers but we’re creating a marketplace for it to allow the economics and availability to work for other manufacturers,” Langer said.

PCR is more sustainable because it helps take virgin plastics out of the equation, according to TerraCycle’s Herrera, who said that 90 percent of an average product’s environmental impact comes from extracting and refining raw materials.

But for companies trying to put beauty products into beautiful packaging, PCR has posed a historical issue — it often lends a gray tinge to the plastic, which is considered a no-no from an aesthetic point of view.

“Recycled plastic, sometimes the color is a grayish version of the color,” said Rosen. Some brands, especially those with black packaging, end up using 50 percent PCR and 50 virgin plastic, he said. “It’s something that can be done with darker colors like black, but not with lighter colors,” he said.

Procter & Gamble, an early investor in the Loop program and major player in the beauty space with almost $14 billion in beauty sales for calendar 2019, has engineered a solution for the gray PCR problem called Pure Cycle. The technology removes dyes and contaminants from plastic packaging, leaving what it calls a “virgin-like resin” available for the next generation of packaging.

Pure Cycle is run as a separate business from P&G, and plans to open a production plant in Ohio this year. The company says the technology is available to anyone, but that the first plant has already sold production for the next 20 years.

Price tags for sustainable packaging, which can be more expensive, can be a deterrent.

“You might find someone who’s produced a really cool wood-chip packaging but then the price point is such that it would nearly double the [recommended retail price] of your product. It seems crazy to have to put such a percentage of your budget for the overall product in the packaging,” Brightman said. 

New, more sustainable materials, like shells replacing plastic linings, for example, can be costly, too. “It can be 50 percent higher,” shared Plavsic. “It’s very hard for brands to switch over in that case. It would be amazing if there was to be some kind of [resource] where brands could buy raw materials together, something sustainable, that would bring the cost down for everybody. That would be a mode of thought that could help make it more accessible to brands.”

The costs become less staggering when packaging is reusable.

TerraCycle’s Loop program, which works with beauty brands from Pantene to Ren to The Body Shop, asks brands to front the cost of durable packaging that can be used at least 10 times. Then, Loop handles washing it and giving it back to the beauty manufacturers for refills. 

“That’s the most sustainable package in the world, when a consumer loves the jar or the bottle so much that they don’t throw it away,” Rosen said, noting that refill conversations are active in today’s beauty packaging market.

“Refillable is a big thing they’re talking about,” Rosen said. “That’s something, ironically, that goes…back [to] the Fifties — Revlon did refillable lipstick bullets.”

Joe Cloyes and Greg Gonzalez, cousins and cofounders of superfood skin-care brand Youth to the People, have adopted the idea at their headquarters in downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District. Just last week, they launched a $64 16-ounce “cleanser refill.”

“We did it last year on a limited run,” said Cloyes. “It’s going really well, and there was a huge demand for that product afterward. It’s a glass bottle, no pump, just a small plastic cap. You get that and refill your 8-ounce cleanser or travel-size cleaners. Most of our products in our travel size are refillable, and we’re going to be continuing that by working out how we can refill our smaller products especially.”

They also plan to create a larger-scale refill system. “It’ll be across our full-size lines, as we look to improve,” he continued. “The refill aspect within beauty is something that’s going to be very important in the coming years, and we want to do everything we can to innovate that.”

For more from, see: 

COVID-19 Impact on Environment, Sustainability in Beauty Industry