The tricky thing is that many of these items can’t be recycled, either because they are made from mixed materials or include complex dispensers and compacts.
And while you might think you’re doing the right thing by throwing your empties in the recycling bin, studies have shown that only 9% of plastic actually gets recycled. The rest goes into landfill or waterways where it can take anywhere from 450 to 1,000 years to break down, or is burnt into the atmosphere (eeek!).
Then there’s the outer packaging and plastic wrap, paper and foam inserts, mirrored glass and more, sometimes all present in a single product purchase.
Not to mention the stuff inside! That can also pose a sizeable threat to the environment. Many scrubs on the market still contain polyethylene – tiny plastic beads that end up in the waterways. Researchers from The Ocean Conservancy suggest there are as many as 5 trillion pieces of microplastic in our oceans at present and that by 2050 there will be MORE PLASTIC IN THE OCEAN THAN FISH! Other chemicals that harm ocean life include commonly used Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), triclosan, chemical sunscreens (which damage the reefs), silicones and more. Commonly used palm oil also leads to rapid deforestation, wildlife extinction and climate change. (Eds Note: We’ll do a separate story on Clean Beauty formulations!)
Distressing stuff. It set me on a path to discover and support the brands that are rethinking their packaging and actually making a difference.
What I did find was that a lot of brands are trying to make a difference, and there are some developments worth reporting, but when it comes to beauty packaging we still have some way to go.
Here – a cheat sheet of the different types of beauty packaging and the brands that are doing it best.
This is one of the most sustainable packaging solutions available today and works particularly well for larger, high-use products such as hand wash and body cream that lend themselves to be easily refilled. Rather than tossing or recycling a beauty product when you’ve used it up, you’re able to fill it up at home or in-store, or pop in a refill and reuse your original container, reducing waste and conserving the energy and materials that would otherwise go into manufacturing a new jar or bottle. There are some amazing brands bringing out refillable products, so you don’t feel like you’re sacrificing quality or luxury for sustainability.
L’Occitane have introduced eco-refills for a vast majority of their range, which allows customers to refill and reuse their favourite products. This clever move means they have reduced their use of plastic and packaging by up to 60% – 90%, plus it’s great value.
Australian fragrance house LUMIRA‘s gorgeous anti-bacterial hand washes come in 100% recyclable glass containers that can be refilled and reused when empty – the brand offers convenient, waste-reducing refill pouches for every fragrance in their handwash range. We love the gorgeous Balinese Ylang-Ylang scent! Their candles are also housed in recyclable glass, which they encourage you to repurpose as a chic container after use.
Giorgio Armani now offers refill pods for some of their skincare range, including the Crema Nera Extrema Supreme Reviving Cream, a revitalizing anti-ageing face cream with ingredients inspired by the Italian island of Pantelleria.
Also offering refillable options is is Lancome Paris. They’ve brought out refill capsules for a few of their skincare products, including the indulgent Absolue Rich Cream, so you don’t have to throw away the beautiful gold jar decorating your bathroom cupboard.
Compostable packaging is a fantastic solution designed to break down after use in a way that not only avoids tonnes of plastic waste going to landfill, it also returns valuable nutrients back into the soil without producing methane gas that organic waste emits when it biodegrades in landfill. You’ll need to look for a little green logo on the packaging that will either say ‘compostable’ or ‘home compostable’. Home compostable packaging can go in your compost heap in the garden, while industrial compostable items should go in your ‘FOGO’ (Food Organics, Garden Organics) bin which is rolling out in Council areas across Australia and around the world, where they’re sent to composting facilities that have special equipment for breaking down more difficult items.
Despite these amazing benefits, compostable material isn’t as durable as plastic, so brands are still working out how to best utilise it in their packaging. Here are some beauty brands making the most of this sustainable packaging option.
Seed Phytonutrients is an incredibly ethical company with high-performance, clean formulas for hair, face, and body. They are certified climate neutral and cruelty free, but what’s really special about this brand is their first-of-it’s-kind bottle made from compostable paper. Safe for use in the shower, it can get wet and then dry in around 30 minutes. The bottle is made from 100% post-consumer recycled paper with a post-consumer recycled plastic liner, so unfortunately it does still contain some plastic, but it’s a great development as it uses 60% less plastic than a traditional bottle. As an added bonus, once the bottle’s empty you can crack it open to discover a beautifully-designed packet of heirloom herb seeds to plant. The brand isn’t available in Australia yet, but we’re awaiting it’s arrival!
Kjaer Weis has started using 100% refillable, recyclable and compostable paper packaging for their ‘red edition’ products, designed to mimic lacquered leather. Their Collector’s Kit palette holds up to 6 essential products for face, lips and eye in a refillable, glossy red compostable paper compact.
Axiology is a niche cosmetics brand dedicated to reducing waste. Their packaging is made from recycled trash by a women-run cooperative in Bali and is both recyclable and compostable. Their vegan multi-use Balmies are their ‘most sustainable product to date’ – the cosmetic crayons can be used for eyes, lips, and cheeks, and most importantly are completely plastic-free, wrapped in compostable recycled paper and sold in a box that can be recycled or composted.
And it’s not just about outer beauty – inner beauty is important too! Imbibe’s Miracle Collagen supplement is designed to support, rehydrate and repair skin cells and is sold in a chic black reusable 100g glass jar, as well as a 100% compostable 300g bag.
Plus, if you’ve ordered any products online recently, they might have come in Hero Pack packaging – used by Lush and wellness company Keep It Cleaner to name a couple, Hero Pack offers home-compostable, zero-waste packaging products that are also pretty cute (we love the pink shade!).
Many brands are now using recycled and post-consumer waste materials in their packaging. ‘Post-consumer’ means the packaging has already been used, and has been recycled and used again. This is great because it reduces resource consumption and means packaging that would otherwise go to landfill is instead given a new life.
Cult skincare brand Clinique is making great moves towards more sustainable packaging. By 2025, parent company Estée Lauder Companies aims to make 75 -100% of packaging recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled or recoverable; they will also increase the amount of post-consumer recycled material in their packaging by up to 50%. You’ll see the ‘Clinique Clean’ logo on the brand’s new sustainable packaging. The classic Rinse-Off Foaming Cleanser, for example, is now housed in a tube made from at least 39% post-consumer recycled material and 28% plant-derived plastic, with a cap made from 25% post-consumer recycled material.
Beauty powerhouse Dove has also committed to more sustainable packaging, vowing to reduce the manufacture of more than 20,500 tonnes of virgin plastic per year through changes including making their iconic Beauty Bar soap packaging plastic-free globally and launching new 100% recycled plastic bottles. Check out their Restoring Care hand wash, which comes in a refillable, recycled plastic bottle.
Another brand known for their environmentally-conscious ethos is Aveda. They try to use post-consumer recycled content and ensure packaging can be recycled wherever possible. A majority of their skin care and hair styling product range is housed in bottles and jars made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. They also use plastic bottles containing a minimum of 80% post-consumer recycled material made from milk bottles. In fact, the Invati Advanced™ Exfoliating Shampoo and Stress-Fix™ Body Lotion are packaged in 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles.
Recycled materials are a big step in the right direction, but there are limitations. Unless it’s easily recyclable as well, recycled material is reused once and then the journey often stops there. The high collection, separation and processing costs involved with recycling cosmetics packaging means it frequently ends up in landfill despite our best efforts. Luckily, some brands are addressing this issue by ensuring packaging is recyclable as well.
Salon brand Davines not only makes amazing haircare products, but also values sustainability. Their packaging is designed to reduce waste and be recycled after use. They avoid using external packaging, but favor recycled and recyclable or compostable options such as paper where required. One particularly great product in the range is their ‘A Single Shampoo’; not only is it 100% Carbon Neutral with a 98.2% biodegradable formula, but the bottle is 100% recyclable.
Home-grown beauty brand Inika’s certified vegan and cruelty-free products are not only sold in recyclable packaging, but all of their makeup brushes and beauty tools are made from recyclable materials as well. We also love that their Vegan Sculptor Brush features dense bristles and a curved shape, ideal for contouring and adding definition.
And finally, one our hair-care favourites ELEVEN Australia are reducing their plastic use and utilizing 100% recyclable bottles, tubs and cans. They’re also using solar energy and reducing their water consumption, and are always looking into even more sustainable options for their products.
It can all feel a bit too difficult, but that’s where recycling programs come in to do the hard work for you. Many brands and retailers now have self-funded recycling programs set up through innovative company TerraCycle, allowing you to drop off empty product packaging at participating stores who will send that packaging on to TerraCycle for efficient recycling. You may be surprised by how many big names already have recycling programs in place! For example, through TerraCycle you can drop empties off in collection boxes found in the beauty department of all Australian David Jones stores, at the counter of your local MECCA store, or you can return your empty Jurlique packaging to your nearest participating Jurlique boutique. Keep in mind, you’ll need to check which types of packaging can be recycled – for example, aerosol cans and perfume bottles aren’t accepted.
Other brands have their own ‘take-back’ recycling initiatives, encouraging consumers to return empty cosmetic containers in-store. The well-known Back to M·A·C Program rewards consumers with a free lipstick upon returning six used containers. Returned M·A·C product packaging is sent on to their recycling partner Close The Loop, who sort and recycle it in various ways. Thinking of upgrading your hair dryer or straightener? Cloud Nine Hair will recycle your old styling tools for free, whatever the brand, whatever the condition, with the industry’s first styling tool recycling program. You can download a pre-paid postage label via their website to send off your old tools for recycling, free of charge!
Want to get hands-on and take an at-home approach to recycling? Amazing! You can recycle many plastic bottles (check the recycling logo on the back), but make sure they’re emptied and cleaned out first. Leave the labels on to help the recycling team identify what the bottle is made from. Also, don’t pour unused product down the sink – that should go into your normal rubbish bin. Lids can generally be left on when recycling, unless it’s a trigger head or a pump, which should be thrown away. Glass jars can be emptied, cleaned and recycled. Completely finished aerosol cans, for example deodorant and hairsprays, are made from either steel or aluminium which are infinitely recyclable materials (yay!). As we mentioned earlier, mascara, lipstick, and make-up palettes are unfortunately too complicated to recycle from home, but check out local recycling programs for disposal options.
If you look at the ingredient listings of many beauty products, you’ll likely see water (or ‘aqua’) right at the start. And while you might think this vital resource is freely accessible considering it’s literally on tap, that’s not the case for many poorer countries around the world. “Water will become one of the most valuable commodities going forward as it becomes more difficult to access … if we do nothing, two thirds of the global population will live in water-stressed areas by 2030,” says Kiera Flynn, sustainability manager for L’Oréal Australia.
Haircare brands are now bringing out water-free products in bar form, with the added bonus that they’re usually minimally packaged. Ethique’s range is cruelty free, palm oil free, biodegradable and 100% plastic-free. Their water-free Wonderbar solid conditioner is equivalent to five bottles of liquid conditioner, so it cuts down on money, packaging waste and water waste – every Wonderbar purchase prevents 5 plastic bottles from being made and disposed of and saves 5050 millilitres of water.
Aussie salon favourite Original and Mineral have also joined the solid product movement. They’ve been breaking boundaries since they started, and their new Hydrate Shampoo Bar is vegan, sulphate free and sustainable, featuring a 100% natural formula that smells like walnut and maple (yum!).
LUSH has long been known for their ethical approach to beauty. Their website allows you to shop sustainably by selecting the packaging-free product category, where you can choose from a huge range of ‘naked’ products. Their super-nourishing Coco Loco solid shower oil, for example, is formulated with coconut cream, coconut flour and Brazilian orange oil and is gentle on the environment as well as your skin. You can also buy a reusable tin to take your solid products travelling.
While they may not have solved the packaging dilemma, there are so many beauty brands making amazing inroads in sustainability. Chantecaille founder Sylvie Chantecaille’s commitment to environmental philanthropy has seen the company support a varied list of causes, from orphaned elephant rehabilitation to planting a tree for each lipstick sold with their One Lipstick, One Tree initiative.
Iconic skincare company L’Occitane’s key ingredient, shea butter, is procured through a 100% Fair Trade supply chain comprised of women producers in Burkina Faso, and their RESIST program then gives back to these women and their communities. L’Occitane have also partnered with UNICEF to combat childhood blindness through vitamin A supplementation projects in Bolivia, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea.
There’s also Comfort Zone, an amazing skin care brand whose parent company The Davines Group has been completely carbon neutral since 2018 and powers their headquarters using 100% electric energy from renewable sources. Their formulas value highly degradable ingredients that contribute minimal damage to the environment during the break-down process.
And a big shout out to Weleda for their commitment to sustainability! They use sustainable packaging such as 85% recycled glass bottles and recyclable BPA-free and food grade PET, PE/PP and HDPE, and have a recycling program through TerraCycle. They’re also proudly certified with the ‘Look for the Zero’ logo which proves they don‘t use any plastic ingredients at all – their 100% certified natural products don’t contain microplastics and other water-polluting substances often found in beauty products, which is amazing.
In 2010 the United Nations recognized the right to safe drinking water and sanitation as fundamental human rights; that same year, Armani Beauty introduced the Acqua for Life program to provide universal access to drinking water.
The program was born out of Giorgio Armani’s deep connection to nature, in particular water, which is also reflected in the brand’s Acqua Di Gioia fragrance collection, featuring fresh, ocean-inspired notes. The Acqua For Life program has invested more than 10 million euros in projects across the world, and as a result 530 water systems have helped more than 390,000 people in 20 countries on three continents to gain access to safe drinking water.
A number of brands are also literally giving back to the environment. Cloud Nine Hair have teamed up with organization Ecologi and committed to plant 10 trees for every Eco Box chosen at checkout, which will help remove C02e from the atmosphere and reduce their carbon footprint. Similarly, Origins’ Green The Planet Fund has planted, pledged and cared for over 1.8 million trees around the world since 2009.
Waste management practices help to define the end of life for plastics, and prevent waste in the first instance. Unfortunately, inadequate waste management is still a major public health, economic and environmental problem, with 7-10 billion tonnes of urban waste produced each year, and 3 billion people worldwide lacking access to controlled waste disposal facilities according to the United Nations Environment Programme in 2015. They’ve urged us to move away from the ‘linear take-make-use-waste’ economy and towards a ‘circular reduce-reuse-recycle’ approach. The more sustainable practices you can introduce to your daily life the better, and your beauty routine is a great place to start.
We hope you’re feeling empowered to make your beauty routine more sustainable and cut down on product packaging waste, because beauty doesn’t have to mean (the planet) suffering!