There is only so much cosmetics can conceal: highlighting the waste problem in the beauty industry.


We trust our brands blindly and often unconditionally: we may shun a few companies after a scandal breaks out, vow never to buy from there again and within a month or two, after a shiny new collab, we are back. Most companies are aware of our fickleness, our superficial morality, and most of all our narcissism, and therefore scandals are sat out, waiting for it to blow over before it can be re-packaged and re-imagined by the marketing team. Sadly, this is the reality of the fashion world today but while fast fashion companies have a least been attempting to fight the small, unimpactful protests another world has slid quietly through the net: the beauty industry. 

The beauty industry has a whole host of their own issues: for example, pseudo-political terms such as empowerment and self-love are stamped onto the packaging to ensure that the true, self-deprecating nature of the product remains hidden under the perfunctory marketing that draws us all in. These problems, for the moment, will escape the wrath of the discontented student writer. Instead, I turn to another little issue: climate destabilisation. 

Elephants wander new realms in Tilaxan Tharmapalan’s haunting image. They traverse not the harshest conditions that nature can throw at them but instead face new struggles through the bleakest outreaches of human interference, a rubbish dump. The image shows a herd of elephants rummaging through the waste on a landfill site near a wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka and presented the photographer the Royal Society of Biology’s photography competition’s first prize and to humanity the harsh and sobering reality that we rarely are forced to face. 

Among the rubbish that they sort through, I’m sure they are faced with the by-products of our beauty routines from slowly decomposing tubes to the micro-beads polluting their water.

The National Geographic highlighted this problem in 2019, in an article ‘The beauty industry generates a lot of plastic waste. Can it change?’. They wrote, ‘the amount of plastic packaging on U.S. products (not just on personal care items) has increased by over 120 times since 1960—with almost 70 percent of that waste piling up in landfills. Globally, the packaging industry for beauty and personal care products, which primarily reflects plastic packaging, makes up nearly $25 billion in sales.’ As mentioned, this was written over a year ago, and with the advent of Coronavirus, who knows what these figures could look like now. Only time will tell what impact medical necessities will have upon our ocean or what consequences lockdown has had, moving consumers even further away from the less convenient and more expensive eco-friendly alternatives, which are so often produced by smaller and start-up companies.

So, where does this failure lie? Well, in truth, everyone, but that isn’t a very helpful statement. Much of the blame is laid at the consumer’s door and our poor choices and priorities, however, this isn’t the full story. Yes, we need to get better and yes, those who can afford it should be prepared to spend a few extra pounds on a product that is recyclable and on a company that is committed to sustainability. Yet, we are equally entitled to exclaim that the issue is so confusing and the jargon so convoluted that it sometimes feels like you need an engineering degree in order to understand the recycling system; and further to this, to what extent are companies genuinely committed to ensuring that their products are sustainable and are not cutting corners so that they can feign concern in order to not lose their customers? In short, how many beauty companies are interested in more than their fiscal goals?

The first step is understanding what is actually on our bottles. The signs on the side of our jars, pots and bottles tell us more than we appreciate.  The first one is of an open pot with a number followed by ‘M’: this is the period after opening with ‘M’ standing for months, 6M therefore mean you have 6 months to use it after opening. A similar symbol is an hourglass, however, it states that the product will last for 30 months whether it has been opened or not. The leaping bunny, perhaps the easiest to decipher, means that no animal testing was used. The Mobius symbol means that the packaging is recyclable and if there is a number inside, that is the percentage of packaging that was made from recycled material. The green dot is the symbol with the two arrows inside which means it is part of the European recycling scheme and has abided by waste laws.  Lastly, the red Ecocert symbol means that 95 percent of the product contains natural ingredients: for further information their website highlights all the requirements that are needed to have this certification. 

The reality is though that these symbols don’t tell the whole story if they are present at all, and with beauty products being some of the most complex products, what are we to do? Unboxing rituals have helped promote the false image of equating pretty packaging with luxury and so unnecessary plastic wrapping is therefore used for companies to market their product. Therefore, a small pot with a neat Mobius symbol is rarely the reality for most of us. 

‘Beauty product packaging is often composed of a variety of types of material,’ explains Stephen Clarke, Head of Communications at TerraCycle Europe. ‘[…] 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry,’ Clarke continues. ‘Of these, very few plastic waste items generated in the bathroom are accepted by most public kerbside recycling programmes.’ 

Much journalism has placed the solution in the hands of the consumer, calling for longer-term changes in our shopping behaviour and a need for us to demonstrate that we demand better; but why is this the end of the story? We certainly need to change our habits but that can be difficult for a whole host of reasons: maybe we don’t know what our products are made out of? Maybe we don’t live near a place that does refills?  Maybe we cannot afford the premium prices that eco-friendly companies charge. 

We cannot afford to let companies slowly bend to our will, it is time to call for companies to be proactive and transparent: it is time for them, as well as us, to do better.

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