The Ugly Side of Beauty: The Cosmetics Industry’s Plastic Packaging Problem

The personal care and beauty industry produces more than 120 billion units of packaging every year globally—most of which are not truly recyclable. In 2018, in the U.S. alone, almost 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were created just for beauty and personal care products. 

And the problem is set to get worse. The global cosmetics market generated approximately US$ 341.1 billion in 2020—and it’s expected to grow to US$ 560.50 billion by 2030. Clearly this is a source of plastic pollution that needs to be addressed.

How can plastic be non-recyclable? If you rinse it out and put it in the recycling bin, you prevent it from becoming pollution, right?

Unfortunately, no. Since 1950, the beginning of large-scale plastic production, only 9% of the world’s plastic has been recycled. In recent years, more people have awakened to the truth that the idea of recycling plastic is largely a myth

A recent report by Greenpeace USA found that only plastics #1 and #2 (out of 7 types of plastic) could legally be claimed to be recyclable in the United States. This is because the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides requires that a significant (>60%) portion of the Total American Population have access to municipal recycling to claim an item as “recyclable.” Unfortunately, many cosmetics and personal care products use plastics other than types #1 and #2 for their packaging. You can sometimes see which type of plastic is used in packaging by searching for the chasing arrows with the number in the middle. However, in October 2021, California passed legislation that even bans the use of the chasing arrows for non-recyclable plastic, and it’s becoming harder to find in general—because so much plastic packaging is not truly recyclable.

If you can’t really recycle the other kinds of plastic, what can you do with them to ensure they don’t turn into pollution?

Certain companies advertise “recycling by mail” programs where consumers can send their hard-to-recycle plastic items to be properly recycled. Problem solved, right?

Not exactly. Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup recently published a fact sheet indicating that “recycling by mail” programs are largely greenwashing* because the plastics that are collected and sent back are downcycled** into other products and eventually incinerated or sent to landfills. (*Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. **Downcycling means to recycle a material in such a way that the resulting product is of a lower quality/stability/value than the original item)

These types of programs are allowing companies a way to appear to be tackling their plastic pollution problem when really they are just kicking the can further down the road. Instead of focusing on what we do with packaging once it exists, we need to be very careful about how we use plastics in the first place. We can try to send it away, but there is no “away.” And we can’t recycle our way out of this crisis.

But why are plastics such a problem?

Single-use plastics are the primary source of plastic pollution on the planet, with Americans alone discarding more than 30 million tons of plastic a year. With 99% of plastics made from fossil fuels, their climate and environmental justice implications are significant and increasing. In fact, the plastics industry’s contribution to climate change is on track to exceed that of coal-fired power in the U.S. by 2030. The plastics industry’s largest market is also single-use packaging (accounting for more than 40% of the total plastic usage in the world).

So what can we do?

Fortunately, there are ways to enjoy cosmetics and personal care products while reducing one’s plastic footprint. Here are a few tips.

  • Remember, the best packaging is no packaging.
  • When you buy cosmetics, look for options with little or no plastic packaging, or for shops that will refill containers.
  • Choose bar soaps over a plastic bottle filled with liquid, for example, or try a shampoo bar.
  • You can also try do-it-yourself (DIY) personal care products at home, which will cut down on packaging and on cost. It is quite easy to make your own body scrub, moisturizer, or even toothpaste with just a few ingredients that you can buy in bulk (in paper or glass).
  • If you must buy something packaged in plastic, favor the more recyclable plastics #1 and #2, and buy in bigger containers. (Smaller containers or single-serve pouches mean a lot more plastic comes with your personal care products).
  • Demand better from the companies whose products you are buying! Call them or email them and let you know you want to be able to buy their products without a side of plastic.
  • Glass is infinitely recyclable without being compromised so products that come in glass can be a viable solution. Metal packaging like steel or aluminum is also truly recyclable.
  • Cardboard and cork are good biodegradable solutions, and there are lots of innovative solutions in the works, like packaging made from seaweed or mushrooms. 

When we talk about corporate accountability, the beauty world is no exception. Size, color, and material are all important aspects to consider when addressing the circularity of a product—since most of it is simply not recycled. We took the concept of zero-waste seriously, and that meant creating less products using the least amount of materials, and long-lasting products. For instance, our multi-purpose shampoo bar eliminates the need for multiple products and packaging. When considering the future direction of this sector, I would love to see reusable systems scaled in a way that’s accessible for everyday people.

Shilpi Chhotray, Founder + Advisor, Samudra Skin & Sea; and Co-Founder + Executive Director, People Over Plastic

Also consider what’s inside the package…

MADE SAFE, a Plastic Pollution Coalition member, also looks at the pollution inside products and encourages better practices for packaging, recognizing that we need to be sure not to harm ourselves and the ecosystem with our products.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep app, and Cancer Schmancer are also great resources for guides on concerning chemicals in cosmetic & personal care products, as well as legislation aimed at removing these chemicals from personal care products and packaging. PPC coalition partner The Story of Stuff also made this great informational video about the toxic chemicals in personal care products. And be sure to check out the documentary, Overload: America’s Toxic Love Story.

This topic reminds us all that less is more. We all have drawers filled with cosmetics and personal care in plastics that will last longer on this earth than we will. It seems only logical that we ask ourselves to reduce that plastic wherever and whenever possible.

Amy Ziff, Founder and Executive Director at MADE SAFE

Where can I find cosmetics with better packaging?

There are many businesses and individuals working on better ways to deliver beauty products. SomePlastic Pollution Coalition members who provide or are working on package free or no-plastic packaging for personal care and cosmetics include:
Annmarie Skincare
C & The Moon
Do Good Soaps and Suds
Environmental Working Group
Fillgood Co.
Green & Gorgeous Organics
Henson Shaving Co
Plaine Products
Plastic-Free Mermaid (her I Quit Plastics book is full of DIY recipes)
Samudra Skin & Sea
True Botanicals

Also be sure to check out the recent report on Good Morning America (GMA3) “Creating ‘Zero-Waste Face’ in Your Beauty Routine,” featuring PPC member C & The Moon and Co-Founder & Managing Director, Julia Cohen.