Big Beauty wants to go green but a mountain of trash stands in its way

12th April 2021 | Recycling

From its factory in West London, Pai Skincare has staged a packaging overhaul. As of last autumn, glass bottles were used to package 50 per cent of its products. Tubes of virgin plastic were swapped for a blend of post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) and a sugar cane bioplastic. Oils, serums and tonics are now in matte, laminate-free boxes made from 40 per cent recycled cardboard, with ingredient lists and usage instructions printed across the sides.

“We managed to reduce virgin plastic by 35 per cent last year,” says founder and CEO Sarah Brown. “Our caps are polypropylene, so they are coming from virgin [plastic], but we’re working on that.”

Stocked at John Lewis, Whole Foods and Cult Beauty, Pai has built its name off organic, vegan and cruelty-free products. The green packaging push is part of a rebrand that was initiated in 2018 to help it stand out in the increasingly crowded clean beauty landscape – forecasted to be worth $54.5 billion by 2027 (£39.3bn). But no beauty brand is immune from the pressure to clean up the industry’s waste problem, which amounts to 120 billion units of packaging annually.

Big Beauty

According to the British Beauty Council’s 2020 Courage To Change report, 91 per cent of consumers polled said they wanted less packaging, while 39 per cent thought brands should be doing more to produce environmentally-friendly packaging. And it seems the market is listening. Indie brands and major players including L’Oreal and Unilever are pledging to create packaging that is made from recycled materials, or that is easily recyclable, reusable or compostable, to avoid sinking under the changing tide of public opinion.

“It’s like the levees broke,” says Brandon Frank, president of Pacific Packaging Components, a California-based company that has developed solutions for companies including Drunk Elephant, Dermalogica and Ole Henrickson. If brands don’t change now, he warns, “you’re going to find yourself in an aisle filled with recycled-material bottles and stand out as a brand that doesn’t care about the environment”.

But beauty brands that want to be sustainable can’t just swap their plastic packaging for glass and consider the problem solved. Tackling the waste problem means reconsidering decades-long expectations around the products people buy and the infrastructure that helps people dispose of them.

On the surface, swapping one bottle for another seems relatively simple: there have never been as many options on the market. In 2019, Verescence, one of Europe’s leading cosmetic glassware manufacturers, got a quarter of its work from “glassification” projects, for which clients commissioned it to replace plastic packaging with glass alternatives, according to Céline Le Marre, a company spokesperson. Similarly, Frank has seen increased client demand for PCR and aluminium packaging, and has witnessed a stream of new solutions from suppliers, from paper bottles (like the ones expected to be trialled across L’Oreal’s portfolio this year) to bioplastics.

But some packaging is almost impossible to replace because of simple chemistry: a brown bottle of Vitamin C serum, for example, is hard to recycle. But it’s designed to be durable enough to withstand its journey from the factory to your bathroom, dark enough to protect it from the oxidising effects of sunlight, which lowers its efficacy, and airtight enough to keep out contaminants.

The practical headaches continue from there. Switching from virgin to recycled plastic is more expensive, the colour will be different and there could be compatibility issues for the product. And with paper, you need to use a plastic liner to keep the container from absorbing what’s inside.

Then there’s the issue of creating a product that consumers actually want to pick up off the shelf. For Kirsten Kjaer Weis, who founded her eponymous high-end cosmetics brand in 2010, the luxury element was a major challenge. “Most materials that were available on the market that were sustainable and recyclable very much looked it,” she says. Today, the star of her range is Zamak, a high-shine metal alloy composed of zinc, aluminium, magnesium, and copper that is used to make compacts, among other products. (A lighter, less expensive alternative made from recyclable paper was unveiled last year.) But even gleaming, plastic-free Zamak comes with its own troubles: as an alloy, it isn’t easy to recycle.

Beauty packaging often has a mix of materials to be more alluring to customers, says Stephen Clarke, head of communications at TerraCycle, a recycling firm that specialises in the disposal of products not easily recycled by local authorities. “You might have two different types of plastic, there might be a glass mirror compact in it, you might have foam inserts. The more complex, the more different types of material, the harder it is to recycle and the less chance it will be recycled locally.”

Most local recycling efforts, he explains, don’t accept beauty products because of the tremendous amount of effort – and cost – required to identify, separate, clean and sort the components. Many smaller items, like mascara and lipsticks, are also too small to be processed by industrial recycling machines.

TerraCycle runs 40 free recycling programs with brands like Kiehls, Garnier and Burt’s Bees, that lets customers drop products in store for recycling. In November 2020, funded by Maybelline, TerraCycle installed recycling drop-off boxes for customers at 1,000 Boots, Superdrug, Tesco, Sainsbury’s locations across the UK for makeup containers from any brand.

Luxury beauty brands are trying a different tactic: to get people to keep their old makeup pots forever. Weis’ shoppers are encouraged to buy packaging in Zamak, or one of the Red Edition paper alternatives unveiled last year, and then buy individual eyeshadow pans, lipstick bullets and other replacements as needed, at an average of 70 per cent of the price. “We’re looking at it as an heirloom. It’s like having your favourite watch or bracelet,” Weis says.

Last summer, TerraCycle launched Loop, a zero-waste shopping platform that lets consumers order refillable products online, as a pilot project in the UK, and plans to establish an in-store equivalent in partnership with Tesco later this year. “We know that recycling on its own is not enough,” Clarke says. “We have to change the way we consume.”

This, it seems, is the sticking point: finding ways to wean consumers off a mode of consumption they’ve been fed for decades. And this, Frank says, will take as much work as developing new packaging alternatives. “We’ve sacrificed sustainability and eco-friendly options for convenience and cost,” he says. “And most of the time, when that’s done, it’s an unsustainable business model.”

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