How to Recycle Your Beauty Products
This past year I ordered a popular face oil and waited in anticipation for the omega-rich holy grail to arrive. When it did, it arrived in an 8x8 box filled with bright wrapping paper and whimsical one-liners. For a moment I felt like it was my birthday. But when I reached in and pulled out the miracle oil, packaged in another (much tinier) box, reality set in – all this fanfare for 1 fluid ounce?
Only recently has sustainability become top of mind for the beauty industry as research shows our planet is up against serious obstacles – toxic ingredients, hazardous waste, excessive packaging, and an overwhelming amount of plastic. The United Nations Environment Programme bluntly states, “Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution.” Based on their research below, it’s clear this is not hyperbole.
UNEP Plastics Timeline
From the 1950s to the 1970s, only a small amount of plastic was produced, so plastic waste was relatively manageable.
By the 1990s, plastic waste had tripled in two decades, following a similar rise in plastic production.
In the early 2000s, our output of plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years.
Today, we produce about 300 million tons of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
And, if current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. 1
So, how does one become a more conscious consumer? Turns out trying to do the right thing can be incredibly complicated. In researching sustainability and local recycling programs, we learned that shampoo caps aren’t recyclable (they’re too small), airless pumps have too many small pieces for your average municipal recycling center, and some items are more recyclable than others even if they’re all technically recyclable.2
Source: Beauty Independent
When it comes to recycling correctly, it depends on size, shape, material, and color, explains Elizabeth Schussler of the Recycling Partnership. “The machines [that] sort the plastic are ‘reading’ the plastic and divide it, but there are colors and materials that catch it off guard.” Black plastic is hard to recycle because the sorters don’t recognize the color. For example, don’t just toss LUSH containers into your recycling bin; instead, bring them back to the store, if possible. The brand reuses them as part of its programming.3
Fortunately we’ve compiled a list of resources, including apps, tips, organizations, and rewards programs, that will help you put bygones where they belong.
Reading Recycling Numbers
TerraCycle, a private recycling business, urges consumers to focus less on the universal recycling symbol and more on the label. Their resident beauty industry expert, Gina Herrera, explains, “In reality, only plastic items that have the numbers 1 or 2 printed within the arrows are widely recyclable in curbside recycling programs,” says Herrera. If so, your bathroom products can actually hit the blue or green bin with kitchen and household items because the United States follows a single-stream recycling program (this means that plastics can be recycled with other plastics and glass with other glass).4
Alternative Recycling Programs
Don’t see a recycling symbol? Fortunately, some eco-conscious brands also offer internal recycling programs within their own facilities. TerraCycle actually works with Nordstrom for BEAUTYCYCLE, a free program that invites consumers to drop-off their beauty and skincare product packaging (regardless of brand) at in-store collection points for recycling, including items that are typically unrecyclable. Other brands that have individual in-house recycling include Garnier, Burt’s Bees, eos, Herbal Essences, L’Occitane, Josie Maran, Kiehls, and Paula’s Choice, to name a few. These brands generally work with programs like TerraCycle to properly process waste.
Source: SG Magazine
A general rule of thumb for recycling beauty products is – if it’s made of one type of material, it’s more likely to be recyclable. When multiple materials are used, the recycling process can be costly, time consuming and economically, for the separation process.
If your product is made of one general material like glass, plastic, or cardboard, you can rinse it and toss it directly into its respective recycling bin.
In regards to plastic products, Danielle Jezienicki, Director of Sustainability for Grove Collaborative, advises to stay away from them as they are major pollutants. “The reality is that plastics can usually only be recycled 2-3 times before losing the qualities that make them usable, which means that transitioning to recycled plastic only removes plastic from landfills or polluting the earth by 1-2 cycles.”
What Can’t Be Recycled
Remember how recycling machines can’t read dark colors? Also non-recyclable: products that contain mirrors, magnets, makeup brushes, sheet masks and packets, and squeezable tubes. And smaller items (anything under 2 inches) will halt the recycling process. This includes all travel and portable beauty products.5
As reference, here’s a quick guide of non-recyclables:
Hair Care: Shampoo caps, conditioner caps, hair gel tubes and caps, hair spray triggers, and hair paste caps
Skin Care: Lip balm tubes and caps, soap dispensers and tubes, body wash caps, lotion dispensers and caps
Cosmetics: Lipstick cases, lip gloss tubes, mascara tubes, eye shadow cases, bronzer cases, foundation packaging, powder cases, eyeliner cases, eyeliner pencils, eyeshadow tubes, concealer tubes, concealer sticks, and lip liner pencils
Cadence – the first magnetic & refillable container made from recycled ocean bound plastic
Earth911 – the largest recycling database in the nation, Earth911 tells you how and where to recycle.
How2recycle – a standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public.
Pact – collects hard-to-recycle beauty packaging so it can be diverted from landfills.
Recycle Coach – an app that teaches municipality residents and company employees how to recycle properly, using modern technology.
TerraCycle – recycles all brands of skin care, hair care, and cosmetic packaging.TexAid – the ecological collection, sorting and recycling of used textiles.
- United Nations Environment Programme. Beat Plastic Pollution (Interactive) Source
- Lauren Golik. Can We Pump The Brakes On Pumps? Beauty Independent. July 2020. Source
- Angelika Pokovba. How to Correctly Recycle Your Empty Beauty Products. Real Simple. December 2020. Source
- Arabelle Sicardi. A Deep Dive Into the Confusing World of Sustainable Beauty. Teen Vogue. March 2020. Source
- Linda Geddes. Avoid black plastic food packaging – and the 16 other essential rules of effective recycling. The Guardian. July 2019. Source