Waste–especially single-use plastic–is a huge problem, and the beauty industry is a massive contributor. Zero Waste Week estimated that we produce 120 billion cosmetic products in a single year. Although a lot has changed, and beauty brands are always finding new ways to put the health of our planet first, there’s still a lot of work to be done. As consumers, we can educate ourselves and use our buying power to make even faster and bigger changes. There is no planet B.
CHECK YOUR LOCAL RECYCLING FACILITY
First, check your local recycling facility to see what they can and can’t accept. Every city has its own rules when it comes to what can be recycled. Some products will need to be recycled in alternative ways, such as sending them out to a facility or taken back to the brand to be reused.
If you’re unsure if your product can be conventionally recycled (aka left at the curb) there are a few things you can look out for. Even if the packaging has the Möbius loop (the recycling arrow symbol), it doesn’t necessarily mean it can be recycled. Confusing, I know. You want to make sure that the packaging is the right material, size, and color before you toss it into the bin.
The packaging must be one single material, not mixed. If the packaging is made up of multiple parts, for example, a plastic lid, it will need to be separated before you recycle it. The cardboard boxes that your products come in are a pretty sure bet, but look out for the Möbius loop to be completely sure.
There is also a similar symbol on plastic containers that has a number inside. These numbers identity what kind of plastic the package is made of. Most recyclable plastics have the number one or two. Packages with the number three are made of PVC, which can’t be recycled and should be thrown in the trash. Numbers four through seven are a bit more complicated, and you will have to check with your local facility to see if they are accepted in curbside programs, or if you have to drop them off at a facility.
Glass, aluminum, and metal containers are also typically accepted by local programs.
Anything smaller than two to three inches, like a lipstick bullet, was not designed to be recycled even if it has the correct symbol. Most facilities that sort recycling are automated with optical and physical sorters and small containers will clog the process and do more harm than good.
Typically clear, brown, or green glass can be recycled in local recycling programs. Packaging with added color, whether it’s painted or coated, can make products non-recyclable. Since recycling sorts and repurposes with the goal to get it as close to its original state, plastics and glass with added colors can be problematic. Black or dark plastic is also tough to recycle because optical sorters can’t recognize them.
RINSE IT OUT
A good rule of thumb is to always rinse your containers out before recycling them. Some products, like fragrances, or nail polish are considered hazardous material and unsafe to recycle. These products can be unsafe for those working in the recycling facilities or can cause equipment breakdown. Products in aerosol cans, like hairspray or deodorant, must be emptied and depressurized before being recycled or they can cause an explosion while being processed. Again, waste processing varies by city, so make sure to check with your local facility.
CONSIDER RETURNING IT TO THE BRAND
Many brands have loyalty programs where you can return the containers to the store so that they can recycle them properly. Some will even reward you with a free product in exchange for your empties. At Keihl’s, you receive a stamp every time you bring in an empty full-sized product, collect 10 stamps and they will give you a free travel sized product. MAC’s “Back to MAC” program lets you trade in six empty makeup containers for any MAC lipstick of your choice. Le Labo gives anyone who returns their bottle 20% off their refill–as if I needed another reason to stock up on Santal 33.
THROW IT IN THE TRASH
Recycling things that aren’t meant to be recycled is just as bad as throwing them in the trash. If you put something in the recycling that doesn’t belong there it can clog up the entire system. The problem is consumers don’t know which products belong in the recycling (we’re all learning) and put them in there in hopes they are making the right choice. This causes major problems for the recycling industry. Usually, facilities sell the materials they collect to other countries (like China) who then turn them into raw materials for manufacturers to make new stuff out of them. When the wrong materials are mixed in it decreases the price that the recycling facility can sell it for and make it more difficult to convert into raw materials.
If you aren’t sure if your package belongs in the recycling, and you can’t find a way to reuse or repurpose it, it’s best to throw it in the trash. Recycling is complicated so don’t be too hard on yourself, and focus on making better choices in the future.
BE A CONSCIOUS SHOPPER
Recycling your beauty products isn’t the only way to make your beauty routine more sustainable. Start to consciously shop for products with eco-friendly ingredients, plastic-free packaging, and ethically sourced formulas. And something as simple as only buying what you need will have a great impact on your carbon footprint. Some of my favorite eco-friendlier alternatives to everyday beauty products are Face Halo Makeup Remover ($10) to replace cotton pads and switching to a stainless steel razor ($18).
Being a conscious shopper isn’t about being perfect, it’s about learning to make choices that are better for our planet. It won’t be easy, and we will have to sacrifice some of the conveniences we’ve gotten used to, but it will be worth it.
What do you do to be more eco-friendly in your beauty routine?