The Complex World of Sustainable Packaging in the Beauty Industry

Sustainable packaging in the beauty industry is wildly complicated. The nuances between sustainability and safety trade offs alone will make your head spin and the answer to virtually every seemingly simple question is: it depends.

This article is my attempt to demystify and clarify the current status of packaging, especially as it relates to the beauty and personal care industry.

Recycling doesn’t equal sustainable

Despite what we learned in the early ’90s, recycling doesn’t equal sustainable. Yet I find a lot of the conversation around sustainable packaging in the beauty industry is whether or not something is or is not recycled. For a little primer on how recycling is jacked in the U.S., read more HERE.

The majority of small packaging (less than 3 inches by 3 inches) is not recycled in the U.S. due to the size of the grates that catch recycling materials. This means larger items are caught and can be sorted and recycled, but the small items—like lipstick tubes—even if they are recyclable (they aren’t, see below) wouldn’t be recycled. Surprisingly, the color of the products impacts recyclability as well.

What’s the deal with tubes?

Tubes are an easy and affordable option for packaging face washes, toothpaste and other personal care products. The plastic needs to be layered on top of other plastics and materials in order to be able to print on labels, ingredient lists and company logos. This layering process deems all tubes unrecyclable.

Tubes that contain PCR (post consumer recycled content) are a big step forward for reducing our impact of tubes because they give a second life to plastics rather than moving them straight to the landfill. But even tubes with PCR are still not recyclable so consumers who are moving fast may not appreciate how this is a step forward for sustainable packaging. (Some of these products could be recycled if they were part of a take back program like TerraCycle.)

So why not just ditch tubes all together? They are one of the most affordable ways to bring personal care products to market and accessibility is still a key consideration for many brands, as it should be.

Is glass always better than plastic?

It depends! A lot of glass is sourced from Asia, which is not a simple sustainable alternative to virgin plastic (hisses). If the glass is made in North America the greenhouse gas emissions are significantly less and depending on a variety of factors (weight of the glass etc) it can be a more sustainable option than plastic.

In order to know the true impact of glass on water and greenhouse gas emissions, businesses should be doing lifecycle assessments to understand tradeoffs (a technical and science based tool that allows you to compare emissions, water impacts, etc when making packaging selections). Glass continues to be one of the most widely recycled materials, second to materials like aluminum. And it also has the large safety benefit of being a material that you know for certain will not leach any unwanted chemicals into the product.

One final note on glass, I have seen some people say that any glass that is decorated (think etching, colors, opaque etc) is not recyclable. Again, it depends!

While still not widely adopted in the beauty industry, I hope more brands start to use How2Recycle which gives specific instructions on a product by product basis based on a thorough analysis of treatments, colors, material, size and other criteria. Brands who use this tool need to have every specific product vetted and then are assigned proper recycling labels. This tool is helpful to guide brands decisions around treatments and coloring, while still keeping recyclability in mind.

“Post consumer recycled (PCR)” vs. “ocean waste” plastic

Both of these plastic streams have the aim to re-use plastic that has already been created, which is a wonderful way to help reduce our impact on the climate and environment. With that being said, there are supply challenges. Right now PCR plastic demand is at an all time high and prices are going up. Ocean waste plastic (where companies pull plastic from the ocean and make it into products) sounds amazing, but the supply and sourcing of the ocean plastic is opaque and sometimes downright sketchy (aka the entire supply is not actually pulled from the ocean, but is still marketed as such).

Based on my experience, PCR plastic is the preferred route to source plastic packaging, while knowing we need to continue to invest in refillable products that are simultaneously recyclable.

Mixed materials aren’t recyclable

When’s the last time you thought about the inside of a lipstick tube? The inner workings of complex packaging are generally made of different materials, which makes them not recyclable. Another example is the pump of your hand wash, have you ever noticed how there is a little coil inside that helps dispense the product?

Better product design is one of the key ways we can help create products that fit the needs of our waste stream and recycling systems. As you can see, tackling sustainable packaging isn’t as simple as just using a cardboard outside of a lipstick tube, but rather revamping our recycling infrastructure and designing packaging in smarter ways.

Finding single material complex beauty packaging is still hard and often cost prohibitive, but there are some wins out there, like this example of a singular material refillable deodorant.

Aluminum, can it be sustainable and safe?

Yes. Aluminum is one of the most sustainable and widely recycled materials for food and beauty products. Some people are concerned about aluminum exposure and Alzheimer’s (there is actually no strong body of science to back up this rumor, as outlined by the Alzheimer’s Association and other credible medical organizations).

However, for those who want to be cautious and avoid aluminum, brands can safely use liners in the packaging to ensure there is no leaching of aluminum into the product (leachability tests confirm the effectiveness of the liner). In other words, you can design products to both address sustainability benefits while still protecting peoples’ health.

A good question to ask brands using aluminum is if they use EU compliant food grade liners (those are the safest).

Cost & accessibility of sustainable packaging

Right now, sustainable packaging is more expensive. As we have seen with the non-toxic consumer marketplace, as demand grows, costs come down. I am a firm believer that clean and sustainable products should be available to everyone, not only those who can afford it.

In order for us to have clean and affordable products we need Congress to pass legislation to restrict harmful ingredients. In order for us to have sustainable packaging that is affordable, we need those who can afford it, to support brands committed to sustainability. The prices will drop over time and brands will be able to adopt and scale sustainable packaging solutions faster.

Leaching of packaging into formulas

Whether it’s recycled plastic, ocean waste plastic, or other materials, brands should conduct leachability testing for packaging to understand if there are concerns. The tradeoffs between sustainability and safety and endless and it’s one of the hardest things I navigate in my professional career. Rest assured there are simple ways for brands to address leaching in the short-term, but we do need long-term solutions to better design products for circularity.

I barely scratched the surface, but there you have it. A high level overview of the current challenges and opportunities with sustainable packaging in the beauty industry.

In order to move the beauty industry toward more circular design, brands must invest in refillable products, carefully select new materials based on product specific life cycle assessments, and push for policy changes that will change the market forever.

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