Can’t stand the thought of more plastic bobbing in the ocean? These forward-thinking brands aim to usher in a new era of sustainable beauty, from the outside in.
BY KATIE BECKER
JULY 18, 2022
This may sound like a familiar scene: You’ve reached the final pump of a beloved serum or the last inky swipe from a mascara tube, and before you go to chuck the vessel, you take a look and wonder, “Can I recycle this?” For many beauty products, the answer is often an unhelpfully murky “sort of.” Aside from the dismaying realities about recycling that have come to light in recent years, there are conundrums of which plastics are commonly recyclable in a curbside bin, how the various components should be disassembled, and whether hidden pumps are a disqualifier. It also leaves you questioning whether all this packaging was necessary to begin with.
Brands know you are thinking this, of course. Some are even run by individuals hand-wringing about the same. Today, you’ll see marketing for post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials, compostable bioplastics, “forever bottles” designed for easy refill, and “infinitely recyclable” aluminum tubes. There is even an international circular packaging system called Loop, with refill options from participating mass brands like Pantene and Crest (navigable through the accompanying app). The intent is to be the 21st-century milkman for beauty and beyond.
“The proliferation of single-use products has increased exponentially over the last several decades and resulted in a global waste crisis that threatens our oceans, our ecosystems, and human health,” says Loop and TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky. “Today less than 10% of all single-use packaging is recycled, leaving the remaining 90% in landfills, incinerated, or discarded and ending up in our oceans.”
While there is no definitive solution in terms of sustainable packaging, the latest innovations are proving creative and ambitious, without compromising the quality and efficacy of the beauty products themselves. Here, 16 brands that are moving the needle with the planet in mind.
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This collection of hair and body-care products strikes upon two major initiatives in sustainable beauty: aluminum packaging and concentrated formulas (such as this Waterless Shampoo) that aren’t as bulky to ship. “Aluminum can be recycled over and over again and keeps its integrity, unlike plastic, which can only be downcycled once,” says Everist cofounder Jayme Jenkins. Aluminum is also lightweight, won’t break like glass, and does not rust. One caveat to aluminum, however, is that the energy cost to mine the metal is quite high. That’s why Everist tubes will be made from 100% recycled aluminum starting this fall, which will cut the tubes’ carbon footprint by 70%.
$24 at Everist
This design-minded California brand works with more than 75 farms to create its body care, home fragrance, pantry items, and fresh products. This week, a new collection called Garden Essentials (including this Body Wash), arrives with all-aluminum packaging and recyclable pumps. “We considered non-petroleum plastic and post-consumer plastic, but even in its various disguises, it’s still plastic,” says Flamingo Estate founder Richard Christiansen. “Ultimately we grew passionate about aluminum packaging for bath and body products.” He acknowledges new challenges, including the fact that aluminum dents easily, “so we had to put extra protocols in place at each touchpoint.” Flamingo Estate has also turned attention to its shipper boxes, which are reused as compost in the garden for weed control.
$48 at Flamingo Estate
Currently offering brow gel, lip gloss, and mascara (shown here), Izzy is the first makeup brand that is committed to circular packaging. Products arrive in a sturdy cloth envelope that you later use to send back the empties. “Our medical-grade stainless steel tubes are designed to be cleaned and refilled over 10,000 times,” says founder Shannon Goldberg. “What little plastic we do use is reground and recycled at our facility to make new wipers and brushes.” All operations also happen within a 400-mile radius. “Compared to the industry standard, our cosmetics have a 78% smaller carbon footprint after 25 refills,” she says. “The more our products are reused, the smaller our relative carbon footprint becomes over time.” Next up, Izzy is exploring technology that could eliminate the need for packaging components altogether, adds Goldberg.
$39 at Izzy
This plastic-free brand delivers its two skin-care serums—a retinol formula, shown here, as well as vitamin C—in biodegradable vegan capsules housed in recyclable paper containers. “The oft-cited figure (provided by Euromonitor) is that in the US alone, the [beauty] industry generates almost 8 billion units of rigid plastic packaging a year,” says cofounder and CEO Cary Lin, pointing out that the statistic predates a recent surge in the market. “We recently partnered with Bluebird Climate, [and] we found that we generate 35% less carbon emissions compared to the typical serum [format].” Each formula has taken at least a year of development, says cofounder and chief product officer Angela Ubias. Of the hundreds of formulas she’s worked on in her career, the Common Heir vitamin C serum was by far the most challenging, she notes.
$88 at Common Heir
A sibling brand to the cult-loved original R+Co, this line delivers sophisticated, professional-level formulas with a minimized impact on the environment. The packaging draws on an array of well-meaning formats, including bottles made entirely from post-consumer recycled material (which requires a reported 88% less energy to produce) and cans using 100% recycled aluminum. The squeezable tube for the Essential Conditioner features sugarcane bioresins, a technology that is still uncommon in the industry. (Bybi is another brand that uses bioresin.) “Not only is sugarcane a renewable resource, but these sleeves have a 50% lower carbon footprint,” says R+Co president Dan Langer. “The costs and timing are inherently increased with this approach—however, we wanted to set a new standard for the beauty industry and establish new norms.” The bioresins used for beauty products can typically be recycled curbside with other plastics.
$59 at R+Co
Launched earlier this year, Uni is a closed-loop system for body and hair care, featuring 100% recycled aluminum bottles and a sleek exterior “forever dispenser” designed by Marc Atlan. (Beauty-industry observers might know his prior work for Comme des Garçons and Kjaer Weis.) When you hit empty, you simply ship the aluminum bottle back to Uni for a replacement. “Our goal has always been zero waste, so it is important that the bottles that don’t get returned are recycled,” says founder Alexandra Keating. “Aluminum is infinitely recyclable. Nearly 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. Only 9% of plastics ever produced have been recycled.” The formulas are quite appealing (including the lightweight but moisturizing Body Serum), and the household-friendly universality increases the likelihood of exhausting a bottle.
$40 at Uni
“When I started the company in 2009, our packaging was primarily glass, and then we transitioned some of our products, like our shampoo and conditioner, to ocean-bound plastic,” says founder Jana Blankenship of her search for functional, responsible materials. Most recently—as seen in retooled launches like this Hair & Scalp Serum—“we switched to aluminum after conducting a packaging study with the Rochester Institute of Technology, via the New York State Pollution Prevention Initiative.” The decision factored in the arc from manufacture to end-of-lifecycle, as well as the effects on human health and the potential to leach microplastics into waterways. An added complication for many brands is the recyclability of pumps. Usually made with multiple materials, they aren’t always realistic for a consumer to disassemble. As a result, Captain Blankenship is planning to move to mono-material pumps and sprayers, using curbside recyclable material, by next year.
$43 at Captain Blankenship
When mass brands with millions of customers worldwide engage in movements like refillable bottles, the positive impact can be great. “In 2019, we announced our commitment to make all our plastic packaging 100% recyclable and made from 100% recycled plastic—or plastic-free or refillable or renewable,” says Firdaous El Honsali, global vice president of external communications and sustainability for Dove, describing a multi-pronged approach. “Making all our bottles from 100% PCR reduced the use of virgin plastics by 20,500 tons per year.” The new Daily Moisture Body Wash is a case in point. The two-piece starter set includes a concentrated formula (to be diluted with water) along with a reusable aluminum bottle. “After two refills of the aluminum bottle, [a consumer uses] 50% less plastic than if they were to buy our standard single-use, 22-ounce body wash,” says El Honsali.
$15 at Target
Some brands have become extremely imaginative about ways to reduce packaging—including the body-wash brand Plus, which makes dehydrated sheets of its formula, to be used one square at a time. After all, conventional body washes are mostly water anyway, so if you’re using it in the shower, what’s the difference? To up the ante, Plus also designed its individual sachets to be dissolvable as well: You literally toss the wrapper on your shower floor and watch it disappear. According to the brand, about one third of all landfill waste is personal care and beauty products.
$7 at Target
Codex Beauty Labs
“We would define our approach as ‘plant-based recyclable,’” says Codex founder Barb Paldus, PhD, whose skin-care line uses recyclable, sugarcane-derived plastics for its squeezable tubes. This includes several cleansers, moisturizers, and eye creams, such as the Bia Hydrating Eye Gel. “Most companies who really get into being [carbon-]neutral realize it is a lot of work,” says Paldus. “It’s taken us three years to create two product lines that are home-compostable (and microbiome-friendly): soaps and bath soaks. And it took us one year of scouring the industry to find a home-compostable, standup, resealable pouch.” In the future, she pictures an industry where waterless products delivered in compostable packages become more common.
$45 at Codex
Usually, the materials considered for beauty packaging are glass, aluminum, and plastic. Kate McLeod chose to look at bamboo instead when creating a case for her solid face balm. “Bamboo is a wonderful sustainable material that repels water,” says the founder, a former pastry chef. “You purchase [the canister] once and refill over time. This means we are 100% plastic-free.” McLeod’s signature “stones,” offered in versions for body and face, arrive wrapped in a small piece of linen, inspired by cheesecloth; they are designed to gently melt when applied to the skin. As a result, the waterless product “saves 52% of emissions during transportation,” says McLeod. “And buying a refill four times generates 55% less carbon emissions than buying five conventional water-filled moisturizers.”
$76 at Kate McLeod
Tackling personal care, home cleaning, laundry, and hand soap (shown here), Blueland’s waste-minded system pairs sturdy, understated plastic containers with dehydrated tablets or powders that you mix with tap water. The dry refills arrive in compostable paper packaging. “If we were to reuse just 10% of the global plastic packaging waste, we could prevent almost half of the annual plastic ocean waste,” says cofounder and CEO Sarah Paiji Yoo, explaining that Blueland has already helped divert 1 billion single-use plastic bottles from landfills and oceans. “Blueland tablets are ten times smaller and lighter than conventional water-based cleaning products. This allows us to drastically reduce emissions.” Storing the refills is that much easier too.
$18 at Blueland
The vast majority of toothpaste tubes have not been recyclable up until very recently. Colgate spent more than seven years experimenting with recyclable HDPE (aka #2) plastics until they hit upon the same texture and squeezability as the tubes we’re all used to (a non-recyclable plastic-aluminum combination). “Billions of people use toothpaste every day, so we also had to design something that looked, felt, and acted like the tube,” says Greg Corra, Colgate’s worldwide director of global packaging and sustainability. One of the trickiest parts, says Corra, was creating a material that wouldn’t require the company to alter its formula flavors—something millions of customers feel extremely strongly about. Colgate aims for all its tubes to be recyclable moving forward, including the iconic Total. “We’ve openly shared the technology to help accelerate the broader transition,” says Corra. “Having others join us is critical.”
$13 at Amazon
The Provençal beauty brand began accepting empty bottles soon after it launched in 1976, and it later became the first company in the world to use 95% recycled aluminum in their packaging. “We sometimes make choices that don’t fit with trends—for example, we chose not to invest in compostable or biodegradable packaging that, in reality, is not compostable at home and requires very specific industrial processing to actually degrade,” says Shimon Kalichman, a L’Occitane spokesperson and consulting director. “We also chose not to invest in bioplastics, as these can compete with food production.” An internal Packaging Charter requires that any newly developed packaging have less of an environmental impact than its previous version and alternatives, and the refill system, which launched in 2017, is a great example: The pouches save 85% of plastic compared to normal product and in-store refill fountains save 94%.
$84 at L’Occitane
As of this February, UpCircle is a certified “plastic-negative” brand, meaning that it invests in salvaging ocean-bound plastic in a quantity larger than the amount of plastic it creates. This amounts to approximately 4,300 pounds of plastic removed every year. “There is no ‘right’ option, there are just pros and cons,” says cofounder Anna Brightman, noting that the brand’s primary packaging is glass and aluminum. “So if customers choose not to return their packaging to us, they can simply recycle it at home, without the need for specialist recycling services or drop-off points.” Nearly all UpCircle products are refillable, including the Cleansing Face Balm. To fulfill a refill, empty packaging is sent back, sterilized, and then shipped back out. UpCircle is available in Europe and the US.
$24 at UpCircle
REN Clean Skincare
Single-use beauty samples and minis have an outsize environmental impact, but they are growing in popularity, especially with the move toward online shopping. “In 2018, we stopped using sachets for sampling after recognizing their negative impact on the environment,” says REN CEO Michelle Brett. Instead, the brand developed a novel aluminum sample tube, which is reclosable and “made using 100% recycled aluminum, which has a lower carbon footprint compared to the same tube made of virgin aluminum.” After breaking off the tip, use it to plug the tube for a handful of uses before disposing the empty in curbside recycling. Samples can be added to digital shopping carts on the REN site (buying this mineral sunscreen gets you two free tubes). “By upgrading to this sample pack, we saved nearly 2,000 pounds of plastic potentially entering landfill in 2021 alone,” says Brecht.
$40 at Ren