Packaging: What Happens After The Consumer’s Done?
A beauty product’s story doesn’t end with our link; the consumer is much closer to the middle of the chain. From the suds washed down the drain and (eventually) into natural waterways, to the packaging’s second life (which can last for 400+ years for most plastics), true sustainability is more holistic. “[A product’s] end of life is as important as the beginning,” Archer says.
The most obvious solution to sustainably discard something is your curbside recycling bin, which is great for commodity materials, like beverage bottles, paper, and aluminum. “The value of these products covers the cost that's associated with collecting, sorting, and processing them into something new,” says Sarah Teeter, global project manager for TerraCycle, a private U.S. recycling business that specializes in hard-to-recyclable waste. Here’s the catch: “Anything that hasn't been designed with recyclability or recovery in mind is basically deemed non-recyclable in a municipal setting.”
The biggest issue preventing the curbside recycling of beauty products is the very thing that makes them so convenient: mixed materials, like a compact or lipstick bullet made with metal and plastic parts or a plastic pump with a little metal spring. “All those things are really costly to separate, so they're not going to be recovered in the normal recycling ecosystem,” says Teeter.
Luckily, due to consumer interest, refillable makeup is coming back into vogue and packaging companies are starting to respond by using plastic recovered from the ocean. Today, the most sustainable choice is to look for is glass or post-consumer, clear or white packaging, which (due to demand for clear and white plastic over black or brightly-colored plastics by recyclers), is more likely to be taken by your local recycling center.
As for the rest,Terracycle offers a program where consumers can ship non-recyclable products to them for a fee, then, “Our materials department identifies our processing partners to convert that material into a useful new format and find a downstream application for it,” Teeter says. Many brands pay Terracycle to take its products for no cost to consumers (check TerraCycle’s website for details) and many other brands collect empties in stores for commercial recycling. Bottom line: If a product becomes trash, it’s not sustainable, but recycling an empty is often the onus of the consumer.