According to Zero Waste Week, an awareness campaign in the U.K., the cosmetics industry produces a staggering 120 billion units of plastic-containing packaging each year.

While demand for sustainable solutions among beauty consumers has never been higher, most empty makeup containers are still very difficult to recycle or can’t be recycled altogether due to the multi-part or multi-material nature of cosmetics products.  

Impatient for the system to evolve, M·A·C Cosmetics created Back-to-M·A·C – a pioneer take-back program intended to reduce the environmental impact of its packaging by recycling or recovering as much of its plastic packaging as possible. The program today looks very similar to when it was first created 30 years ago in Canada, where the brand was born. People simply return their clean, empty products to a participating M·A·C counter to be recycled; what cannot be recycled is converted into energy.

“Like many, at M·A·C we care about the planet and are doing our part to help improve our environmental impact,” said Philippe Pinatel, Global Brand President, M·A·C Cosmetics. “The creation of Back-to-M·A·C is an early example of the brand’s long-held determination to do good by our global community and the planet. This program really helped set the standard for cosmetics take-back programs and we’re proud of the legacy M·A·C played in inspiring change across the industry.”

Giving products a second lie

Back-to-M·A·C initially helped fill a major recycling gap for cosmetics products when few other options existed. Consumers were quick to embrace the program and it has successfully spread through word-of-mouth from there. Since then, M·A·C has been working to expand the program to more markets around the world.

Notably, M·A·C’s impatience for recycling’s evolution has paid off in a big way. In fact, none of the products taken back through Back-to-M·A·C ever end up in a landfill. In the past year alone, M.A.C processed over 271,000 pounds of containers through the Back-to-M.A.C program in the United States – equivalent to over 2,500,000 lipsticks.

“Given the challenges surrounding cosmetics packaging recycling, it’s important to innovate new systems to find success,” says Olga Kachook, Senior Manager, The Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “The Back-to-M·A·C program is a great example of a company leaning into the challenges and working to build meaningful solutions. We applaud M·A·C Cosmetics for its continued dedication to the Back-to-M·A·C program, and we hope it helps create a place for cosmetics packaging in the circular economy.”

Notably, the program reduces the carbon footprint of M·A·C compacts in the U.S., excluding California, by 9 percent. In countries where the take-back program is in operation, M·A·C partners with leading recycling suppliers to recycle its ABS plastic into new plastic, which goes into the production of new materials including coffee machines, roadways and even new compacts depending on the location, and they recover energy from what cannot be recycled.

Shift in behavior

Going back over 30 years, for many consumers the Back-to-M·A·C program served not only as an enticing way to score a lipstick in exchange for doing good for the planet, but as an introduction to the idea that empty beauty containers should be able to be repurposed or recycled. And as consumer demand for sustainable practices continued to rise, M·A·C, like many others, saw the demand only accelerate in the past year’s pandemic. 

“Many consumers see the pandemic as a wake-up call that we, as global citizens, should take better care of the environment and each other,” said Pinatel. “We see that our consumers are becoming increasingly more altruistic in their motivation for participating in the program.”

Pinatel added that consumers “don’t take action when it comes to environmental or societal issues because it’s a means to an end, but because it’s the right thing to do – and they expect the same from the brands they engage with.”

Ethos evolved

Since M·A·C was founded, the company’s purpose has sought to go beyond the products it develops to help communities. “As part of our pledge to do good for the planet, we continue to improve the sustainability of our packaging and remain dedicated to reducing our environmental impact through programs like Back-to-M·A·C,” said Pinatel.

“We’re also devoted to creating products using safe, good-for-skin ingredients and to being equally transparent about the ingredients that are in our products to help our consumers consciously and conscientiously make the right choices for them.”

M·A·C’s environmental commitments include a continuation to designing products with eco-friendly practices in mind, making smarter, more responsible packaging choices without compromising the brand’s iconic aesthetic and performance. Moreover, as part of The Estée Lauder Companies’ goals, M·A·C’s parent company, 75 to 100 percent of packaging will be recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled or recoverable by 2025.

Additionally, M·A·C’s ambition is to use responsibly sourced paper products whenever possible and currently more than 95 percent of its forest-based fiber cartons are FSC certified.

While the positive impact that Back-to-M·A·C has created is undeniable, according to Pinatel, “recycling is just one piece of the puzzle” for M·A·C. Looking to the future, Pinatel said M·A·C’s commitment to doing good for the planet and community remains unwavering, continuing to set new goals for sustainability and always designing with the environment in mind to make smarter, more responsible packaging choices without compromise.

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