Wild in Wellness: Solving Beauty’s Packaging Problem

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I recently ordered a tiny tube of eyebrow gel from an Instagram-famous beauty brand (which this writer shall not name). What I got instead was a treasure hunt through layers of cardboard, packaging tape, printed mailers, a plastic bubble pouch, and even a laminated sheet of tiny stickers meant to be displayed on, well, I’m not really sure — the mascara itself? 

With ice caps melting and ocean microplastics about to become more abundant than sea-life, nothing feels as frivolous as my impulse beauty buy. But cosmetics and personal care items have become indelible parts of our daily lives, with the U.S. beauty industry currently valued at just over $532 billion. The growth of direct-to-consumer beauty brands, like Glossier and Biossance, has been meteoric, enabled by shoppable apps and social media influencers. Both fast-fashion and luxury retailers, such as Net-a-Porter, are cashing in on the lucrative market by increasing their category offerings by up to 94%. According to EDITED’s retail data platform, “‘beauty’ mentions in email and homepage communications by both beauty and non-beauty brands in the U.S. increased by 58% in 2017 and 2018.” 

This beauty boom comes with a pretty bleak environmental outlook: from disposable razors to shampoo bottles to makeup tubes, billions of personal care items are being thrown away every year. As reported on Refinery29, the beauty industry produces 120-million units of packaging every year, while the EPA estimates that a whopping one-third of waste in landfills is created by personal-care products. 

What’s more, those numbers don’t include the materials these items are shipped in, or some of the ingredients in beauty products themselves (for example, most cosmetic glitter is made from PET plastic, which does not decompose). Luxury beauty brands wanting to convey a sense of value have historically done so through excessive packaging. Now, with the proliferation of celebrity fronted online-only brands such as Kylie Cosmetics and Haus Laboratories, there’s an entirely new motivation for focusing on presentation: social media influencers and Youtube beauty vloggers showing off their purchases via “unboxing” videos and flat-lay photos. Strategic, shareable packaging could cause your brand to go viral now that the way your foundation arrives on your doorstep has become nearly as important as the way it looks on your skin. (Cue those cute but highly toss-able stickers from earlier.)

Even products marketed as “recyclable” almost always require some disassembly — go ahead and toss that glass bottle in the blue bin, but not the plastic pump it came with. Bamboo toothbrushes still have nylon bristles that have to be separated before you can compost the handle. Those shiny compact mirrors? They can’t be recycled like regular glass due to their shiny coating, and forget about eyeshadow palettes with sneaky magnetic components. Do all of this sorting correctly and the effectiveness of recycling is still up for debate now that China no longer accepts recyclables from the U.S. and other nations. 

“When we started asking packaging suppliers for 100% recycled material, they actually laughed at us,” says Tim Hollinger, cofounder of Bathing Culture. “A few told us to use packaging that had 1% to 5% recycled material and make claims, or use faux wood plastic that would look green, since customers would never know the difference.”

But where there’s a problem, there’s usually progress. With increased public awareness about plastic waste and consumer demand for sustainable solutions at an all-time high, the beauty industry is starting to clean up its act. New York City nail salon Tenoverten works with a chemical disposal company called Chemwise to turn leftover polish into paint for industrial equipment. Aveda, MAC, Kiehls, and Origins, among others, all offer discounts and rewards to customers who return their empty bottles and tubes for recycling, while brands like Le Labo and Follain encourage consumers to come in for product refills. LUSH has offered a take-back program for its famous black product pots for 10 years (the company runs its own reprocessing facility where it converts used pots into new packaging). In addition to a huge array of waste-free shampoo and conditioner bars, the brand recently debuted their unpackaged shower gels, a line of bar soaps cheekily designed to look like plastic bottles. 

Many brands, such as Garnier and Colgate, have teamed up with TerraCycle for programs that allow customers to send back their empty containers for free, including difficult-to-repurpose components like gel tubes and hairspray triggers. However, some critics say this isn’t a truly circular solution, since these pieces are often turned into benches and fence posts instead of back into packaging. 

There’s also material innovations. Both Procter and Gamble and Ren Clean Skincare are manufacturing bottles from recycled ocean plastics. Green Cell Foam is made from non-GMO corn grown in the U.S. and acts just like styrofoam, only it’s compostable and water soluble (mycelium-sourced Mushroom Packaging is another alternative). For sealing packages, there’s biodegradable and recyclable water-activated carton tape, while recycled Flexi-Hex sleeves protect bottles in place of plastic bubble wrap. There’s even been strides toward developing a biodegradable, algae-based bioplastic

Furthermore, social-media-savvy customers are holding beauty brands accountable. The anonymous beauty watchdog Instagram account @EsteeLaundry has been policing brands’ use of unnecessary and wasteful packaging, posting: “People have been asking companies to rethink their wasteful packaging for years, but they refuse to listen. Can we please take a pledge in 2020 to not buy from companies that continue to pollute the environment, despite multiple complaints?” However, some customers may not be ready to embrace packaging alternatives, which can put the unrewarding burden of education back on brands. 

“Our challenge has been introducing packaging that isn’t what customers are used to or is less convenient for customers. Our deodorant comes in a jar and needs to be applied with your fingers,” says Tara Pelletier, cofounder of the vegan beauty brand Meow Meow Tweet.

Only time will tell if beauty titans continue to embrace more sustainable, eco-friendly packaging. For now, the impetus seems to fall on smaller, indie beauty brands. Manda Naturals sunscreen products are packaged in bio-plastic tubes made from sugar cane. Soué uses compostable cardboard tubes and, because most stickers have a plastic backing, sought out a compostable alternative printed with water-based vegetable ink. Bite makes plastic-free toothpaste tabs packaged in glass jars, while By Humankind offers cardboard deodorant cartridges for their refillable dispensers. We love the sleek rose-gold look of Oui The People’s refillable single-blade razor handles. 

Esker’s Calendula Hand Cleanser comes in a gorgeous refillable glass bottle that’s also completely recyclable, while Meow Meow Tweet offers bulk refills on select products, such as their Face Toner. We love Haoma’s commitment to creating 100% recyclable containers when possible, like the Calming Temple Balm’s aluminum tin. Bathing Culture recently debuted their Refillable Rainbow Mind and Body Wash, a luxe-feeling glass bottle meant to become a permanent fixture in your shower — just fill it with your favorite soap or take it to one of Bathing Culture’s retail refill stations to top up. 

“We decided our customers are smart and do care, and so do we, and it wasn’t worth being in business if we couldn’t provide sustainable products, which included the packaging,” says Bathing Culture’s Hollinger. “So we pooled all of our money and had bottles made from 100% recycled material that could be recycled over and over again in alignment with the cradle-to-cradle mentality. We’ve lived largely off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but in the long run it was worth every penny.”

XX Johnie Gall. Lead photo by Brooke Shanesy.