The “plastic vs. paper” question seems to have seeped into many areas of daily life over the past few years. Straws, bags, disposable cups, and for that matter, disposable anything, really. Because the issue is, what happens to it when it’s done being used? The delay in asking this question has led to 79% of all plastic ever created to now exist in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment, and only recently has the war on plastic reached the makeup industry.
The beauty industry creates 120 billion units of packaging. Cumulatively? Nope. 120 billion units each year! Not only does this make the beauty industry the highest contributor to plastic production in the world, but when considered that the majority of these units are single use, and thrown away after they’ve been opened or used once the ramifications are astounding. In fact, 95% of beauty packaging is thrown out after one use, when overall 50% of plastic products are discarded after one use. The question is bigger than plastic or paper - how can the beauty industry reduce plastic packaging, and why hasn’t it already?
First, let’s focus on a different aspect of overwhelming plastic production in the cosmetics and personal care industry: microplastics. These are plastic particles less than 5mm in diameter that can be found not only in clothing and cleaning products, but also things that get semi-absorbed into the skin, such as makeup, toothpaste, and soap. As such, these microplastic particles wind up in the ocean, not only being ingested by marine life, but also humans, because they can pass through water filtration systems. Because they cannot be removed from the water - at least, not yet - prevention is key.
Now onto the 120 billion units. This is not just an excessive amount of plastic to contain an excessive amount of makeup products for consumers. It necessitates an equally excessive amount of materials like cellophane, cardboard, and paper. What all of this does, while making more visually appealing products, is create an enormous amount of waste. The same visual appeal could be made and perhaps even nicer with the use of glass or aluminum, which are two of the best alternatives to plastic. The problem is their expense, and in some cases, practicality. At the same time, how practical is it to be putting 120 billion plastic units annually into the world with few ways to remove them?
The recycling process naturally comes next. After all, it’s become the standard way to “remove” plastic. As previously mentioned, 79% of all plastic ever created still exists in landfills or the environment. So given that majority, the percent of recycled plastic can’t be good. Indeed, only 9% of all plastic has been properly recycled. Plastic doesn’t break down naturally, therefore, to be disposed of requires the correct procedure. When there are 120 billion units annually in the makeup industry alone, not to mention countless water bottles, bags, and other everyday items, it’s easy to see how we could fall behind in the recycling process. This is also not considering the microplastics that exist in our everyday lives that end up in our water supply and oceans. However, microplastics have been met with more widespread reform than plastic packaging, so far.
That is not to say there have been no attempts made at solving the overall problem. A handful of existing companies and many makeup startups have vowed to be the change they want to see. One common solution is the use of glass as the container material. This is more expensive and harder to ship, of course, but it does not use any plastic. It is especially helpful when the company offers a refill program, as well. When the product is used up, consumers simply send back the glass container to get more product. This is an excellent method, and even without the company refill aspect, the consumer can use the glass jar or container in plenty of useful ways, rather than tossing it in the trash.
Another way companies have met the call to reform is to simply redesign the product. This is especially suited to shower products, as glass containers in the shower are not a smart concept. As an example, shampoo bars have come about. This is the same concept as a bar of soap, but shampoo instead. This takes away the plastic bottle that is decently sized and thrown out every few months. The same idea has been used for toothpaste, making glass containers of toothpaste capsules that do not require disposable containers and can instead be refilled by the company. This requires a good amount of creativity and engineering, but the beauty industry is one of the most versatile out there, and can handle improvement. New and advanced products come out all the time, so surely the packaging can be adapted with them.
Oftentimes, replacing plastic with biodegradable plastic is desired. At least the idea is there, but biodegradable is not the perfect solution, or even a great one. Yes, it eventually degrades, but the plastic particles still exist and contaminate the environment while it exists. The overall goal and method of plastic reform is to use reusable, refillable, or compostable alternatives. To fight against excessive plastic production and help limit the plastic annually introduced into the world, look for companies that prioritize these three methods. They may be more expensive, or less convenient, but what will be the cost we pay for a world filled with plastic that will never go away? When other materials or alternative processes become the standard, there will also be additional benefits. The cosmetics industry certainly isn’t going anywhere, and that’s not the goal. However, when it comes to such necessary products, they should exist in our world with as much sustainability as possible.