Pretty Little Lies: How the Beauty Industry is Hurting our Planet

Pretty Little Lies: How the Beauty Industry is Hurting our Planet

While consumers do their part to sort their recyclables, the beauty and personal care industry, which creates 120 billion units of packaging every year, has been slow to develop ways to reduce waste that wreaks havoc on our environment.

When you think of how many plastic bottles, tubes, and containers live in your bathroom (not to mention razors and toothbrushes), it’s not surprising that beauty packaging is the number one contributor to plastic production in the world. Plastic isn’t the only culprit; personal care products create equal waste with cellophane, cardboard, and paper. Not so pretty. 

Approximately 7.2 billion pounds of plastic flow into the ocean every year from single-use products alone, but non-recyclable materials pollute more than our water. Here’s one example: toothpastes’ box packaging (a.k.a. the box you immediately throw into the garbage after purchasing) contributes to deforestation, CO2 emissions, and increased water usage.

When there are an estimated 900 million plastic tubes that need to be recycled per year, why don’t companies just get rid of the box? According to "Waste Age and Recycling Times: Recycling Handbook," edited by John T. Aquino, it’s about marketing. Boxes look more attractive on the shelf and are competing with an aisle full of similar products.

But today, companies are realizing more consumers aren’t just grabbing a box with an attractive design or choosing the one that claims to make their teeth 100 times whiter than the other leading brand. They are making purchasing decisions based on sustainability and are questioning the dizzying number of unpronounceable, mystery ingredients listed on those boxes. 

Another issue beauty brands are facing is the colossal waste produced by single-use plastic items. There are reasons these items have become so popular. They travel well, are lightweight and appeal to those who want to try a product before making a full-sized purchase.

These items used to be positioned at the end of a drugstore aisle and marketed as travel products. Today, a store like Target has built an oasis in between aisles dedicated to single-purchase items. Drugstores and department stores alike stock face masks, lip balms, and makeup wipes as point of purchase impulse buys as you wait in line to checkout. 

But here’s the problem. Of the 122 billion plastic sachets produced annually, less than 10% are recycled. A Plastic Planet, an organization dedicated to “turning off the tap on plastic products” has secured signatures from large companies and politicians on a bill that would ban all single-use sachets in the UK. Naturally, it’s clean beauty brands and retailers leading the charge on the beauty industry’s packaging problem.

Last month, Credo, the largest clean online beauty retailer with its flagship store in San Francisco, banned single-use products, including samples, and is encouraging other brands to change their ways. They issued packaging guidelines that now require their 130+ brand partners to “meet specific standards meant to reduce the use of single-use items, virgin plastic and non-recyclable materials.”

While the beauty industry works to create sustainable packaging solutions, recycle their products’ packaging to reduce their carbon footprint on the environment, here are some ways we can do our part to protect our beautiful planet:

  • When recycling products, don’t skip over your bathroom and cosmetics bags.
  • Stop purchasing single-use plastic beauty items.
  • Invest in brands committed to reducing their carbon footprint by limiting the use of plastics in their packaging, have reusable and/or refillable containers and use recycled paper. 
  • Less is more: use products that are natural, raw and vegan.
  • Stamp of approval: look for eco-certified and recyclable products.
  • Double down on multi-tasking products.
  • Simplify while beautifying: consolidate your products. 
  • Do your research and read the ingredients list. Pro tip: Free apps like ThinkDirty scan a product’s barcode and do the work for you.
  • Purchase zero-waste razors (safety razors) and eco-conscious toothbrushes (bamboo and those made from materials such as recycled yogurt cups).