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War Against Plastic Waste: The Case of the Personal Care and Cosmetics Industry

Updated: Mar 24, 2023


When weighing out the cost of your personal care products, what if the real cost of the products you use daily isn’t just the price tag?

The rise of product innovation to keep up with the latest trends and demands has plagued the personal care industry with negative environmental consequences, ranging from practices that harm the land and marine ecosystems, to overconsumption, and waste. Although many players in the industry are actively taking action to address said issues, the waste issue still looms over the personal care industry. According to Zero Waste Europe, the global beauty/cosmetic category produces more than 120 billion units of packaging every year – most of which are not recyclable.


This calls for the global personal care industry to step up their game in reducing its plastic waste footprint. Considering that everyone, regardless of gender or age, views personal care products as a necessity, it is imperative for us to be aware of the environmental impact of the products we use in our daily lives so that we can reduce our plastic footprint.


The packaging and microbeads menace


Taking into account the packaging required to contain various hair and skin care products – from plastic bottles and caps to liners to prove that a product is sealed - makes plastic a quintessential part of a buyer’s experience. This is making a big impact on the environment due to the non-degradable nature of plastics resulting in a large amount of plastic waste generated to be indiscriminately discarded. It is estimated that a total of 12,000 million tons of plastic waste will have been deposited into landfills and a substantial amount of it escaping to the natural environment by 2050 (Geyer et al., 2007). The world has a serious problem with the prevailing plastic footprint amidst other determinants of climate change and according to Anna Brightman, founder of UpCircle Beauty, one of the UK’s most reputable ethical and sustainable skincare brands, “the personal and cosmetic industry as glamorous as it may be, has been one of the biggest contributors to the global plastic issue.”


A beach covered in plastic pollution. Plastic waste, Personal care and cosmetics waste, plastic waste footprint, plastic microbeads cosmetic waste, marine ecosystem. CarbonEthics Indonesia
A beach in Naples, Italy is covered in plastic pollution. Experts estimate that there will be more pounds of plastic than fish by 2050. Photo: Light rocket/Getty images

Plastic packaging is far from being the only plastic component in personal care products. Microbeads, the teeny globules which are used as cleansing or exfoliating agents in various personal care and cosmetic products such as toothpaste, nail polish, or facial wash, among many others, cannot be completely eliminated by wastewater treatment plants. Thus, microbeads are significant contributors to aquatic pollution since microplastics can accumulate and transport contaminants in the marine environment.


The small size of microplastics also has the unfortunate side-effect of making them a part of the food chain since they can be accidentally ingested by marine life. Chris Thorne, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK mentioned “the chemical contaminants microplastics carry may even end up being passed along the food chain all the way to our plates”, suggesting that we may be accidentally ingesting pollutants that are harmful to human health. Although a few countries have banned or are starting to phase out the use of microbeads, most countries still lack such laws.



Plastic and Microbeads in a Pike Fish. Plastic waste, Personal care and cosmetics waste, plastic waste footprint, plastic microbeads cosmetic waste, marine ecosystem. CarbonEthics Indonesia
Microbeads visible in a pike fish. Photo: Onna Lonnstedt/Science

How are companies taking action?


Despite the massive output of plastic from the industry, there has been a rise in natural skincare brands avoiding the use of microbeads and plastic packaging altogether. Brands such as True Botanicals and Annmarie Skin Care use dark brown glass as an alternative. Not only does this reduce plastic, it also eliminates sun exposure, making the product last longer without the use of preservatives.


LOLI, one of the world’s first net-zero beauty lines, utilizes glass and post-consumer recycled cardboard in its packaging. When compared to most personal care products, which are 70% to 80% water, LOLI’s products are 100% waterless. The reason behind LOLI’s creation, as mentioned by Founder Tina Hedges “I didn’t think plastic bottles, 90% water, and pollutive ingredients were fair to the people or planet”.


Some of the larger companies such as Unilever and L’Oréal have set targets to achieve 100% reusable, refillable or compostable by 2025 and to source 50% of packaging from recycled materials.


There’s no doubt that the movement towards better packaging goes hand in hand with the industry’s trends towards natural beauty. Fortunately, “the numbers of conscious consumers are growing“ as mentioned by Hillary Peterson, founder, and president of True Botanicals. Currently, it’s mostly small companies that are pushing past boundaries while larger industry leaders are just taking the first steps to minimize plastics. Meanwhile, environmental advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace and 5 Gyres are working alongside the UN environment program to help big companies accelerate their sustainability agenda by raising awareness and creating a larger demand for recycled plastic.


It takes a village to solve the plastic problem


“I would never say that it’s too late,” Dr. Whitney, a researcher with the NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) says. “But the impacts are significant”. The personal care and cosmetics industry is growing by several percent every year, which means products are constantly flooded into consumers’ hands each year. Even if the packaging is efficient, with the current rate plastic is being discarded into our environment, we do not have the luxury of time before damage becomes irreversible.


Although the situation could have been better, the personal care and cosmetic industry are seeing a shift in focus towards eliminating toxicity at both the packaging and product level which will undoubtedly bring innovation in the coming years. Until then, it is our responsibility to embrace low-waste alternatives and to demand change within the industry for the health of our ecosystems, the next generations, and our own selves.





References:


Borunda, Alejandra. (2019, April 18) The beauty industry relies on plastic. Can it change?. National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/beauty-personal-care-industry-plastic

Inside Packaging (2021, July) How can the beauty industry reduce plastic waste?. Inside Packaging, (59) https://inside-packaging.nridigital.com/packaging_jul21/beauty_packaging_plastic_waste

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/06/233712/beauty-products-ocean-pollution-plastic-chemicals


Lebsack, Lexy. (2019, June 2). Inside the Beauty Industry’s Environmental Awakening. Refinery29. https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/06/233712/beauty-products-ocean-pollution-plastic-chemicals


Plastic Pollution Coalition. (2022). The ugly side of beauty: The cosmetics industry's plastic packaging problem. Plastic Pollution Coalition https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/the-cosmetics-industrys-plastic-packaging-problem


Prabhakar, Madhuri. (2020, June 17). Plastic-free Beauty: The New Normal!. Beat the Microbead. https://www.beatthemicrobead.org/plastic-free-beauty-the-new-normal/


Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2022). Plastic Pollution. Our World in Data https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution


Westervelt, A., & Wordelman, P. by T. (2019). It's time we hold the beauty industry accountable for its plastics problem. Teen Vogue., https://www.teenvogue.com/story/the-beauty-industry-has-a-plastics-problem




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