How to Recycle Your Used Beauty Products

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You may have heard some of the staggering statistics around the amount of waste within the beauty industry. (For example, Euromonitor International reported that nearly 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were used for beauty and personal care products in the U.S. alone in 2018). Another disappointing reality is that “only a small fraction of plastics in the U.S. are actually getting recycled,” says Danielle Jezienicki, the director of sustainability for Grove Collaborative, the company behind Peach, a plastic-free collection of face, body and hair soaps that recently launched. “Those that are more likely to be recycled are larger bottles and containers that aren’t as commonly used in the cosmetics industry,” she adds. The good news is that the beauty industry is starting to think about sustainable packaging in a more meaningful way (though, to be clear, we still have a long way to go). Leaders like Unilever (which owns Dove, Suave and Simple) and L'Oréal (parent company to Kiehl’s, Maybelline and Garnier) have both pledged to make 100 percent of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, refillable, or compostable by 2025; Procter & Gamble (who owns Olay, Pantene and Secret) says 90 percent of its packaging will be recyclable or reusable by 2025 and 100 percent by 2030. Alas, sustainability is a team effort. We, as individual consumers, must work together to reduce waste in the beauty industry—and beyond. It sounds like a lofty goal, but a few small steps can make a big difference over time. Let’s start with some easy ways to recycle smarter.  


To see if a product can be placed in your recycling bin, look for the recycling symbol or Möbius Loop on the packaging. “If the loop has a number 1 or 2 on it, the item can be picked up through most curbside recycling programs,” shares Jezienicki. “Number 5 is collected in some areas, but you’ll need to check your local municipality to see what can be put in your bins. (You can find this information on your town or city's official website or on sites like Earth 911, which lists guides and the recycling locations nearest to you.)


Many brands are starting to think beyond plastic. “I am encouraged to see more brands transition to using glass and metal, which are much more likely to be recycled, and are infinitely recyclable, as they don’t degrade with each go around like plastic does,” says Jezienicki. “And if they don’t get recycled, they are inert, so, at the very least, they don’t degrade into harmful microplastics.”  


When it comes to what’s recyclable or not, size matters. “Anything under two inches—think sprayers, caps, droppers and pumps—are often not recyclable,” explains Priscilla Tsai, the founder of Cocokind. “Sorting happens on a conveyor belt and items that can be recycled are typically pulled out, and smaller parts such as pumps or caps can literally fall through the cracks, so they are unlikely to be recycled on their own—especially when the plastic type is not known,” adds Jezienicki.So, when you’ve finished that bottle of brightening serum or cleanser, disassemble it into the parts that can be recycled (i.e., the plastic bottle or glass container itself) and the parts that need to be thrown away (the dropper cap or spray top). “The exception is when the caps are made out of the same recyclable material as the rest of the packaging,” Tsai adds. (FYI: This should be noted on the packaging itself or on the brand’s website.) “For example, the caps and tubes for our skincare sticks are made from the same material, so they can be recycled as one item.”  
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Unfortunately, there are some beauty products that simply can’t be recycled at this time. For example, items that come in pouches or squeezable tubes—like toothpaste, hand cream and sheet mask packets—can’t be recycled and should be tossed in the trash.Other non-recyclable materials that are commonly used in beauty packaging include anything with a mirror or magnet (i.e., most eyeshadow palettes), as well as makeup brushes and products that have high alcohol content (nail polish and polish remover), which the EPA considers to be household hazardous waste. “If you’re not sure about whether or not something is recyclable, or if something is really dirty, contaminated or flammable, I would say put it in the landfill garbage bin to be safe,” advises Jezienicki. Because if the product turns out to be unacceptable at the recycling facility, it can back up the entire process (which we’re told is a common issue) and end up in waste anyway.


Yes, you want to make sure you give everything a thorough clean before you put it into the recycling bin. Once you’ve completely used up a product, rinse out any leftover residue from the inside, so it doesn’t contaminate other recyclable materials in your bin. This can prevent it from being properly processed and repurposed. Ditto for any adhesives or stickers that are on the packaging. “I always recommend removing labels because a lot of the time the adhesive on the label is not recyclable,” says Tsai. We know this is a LOT of information being thrown your way, but before you get too overwhelmed, know this: every little bit helps. Start by making one small change at a time to avoid feeling discouraged. As Tiila Abbitt, the CEO and founder of Aether Beauty, a sustainable makeup company that launched the first zero-waste eye shadow palette, told us earlier this year: “This isn’t about perfection," says Abbitt. "We don’t need a few people creating a zero-waste lifestyle perfectly. We need millions of people trying their best, thinking more about their own footprint and making better choices with the goods they are purchasing, however imperfectly, to make a difference.” And on that note, here are some ways you can make your beauty routine more sustainable.  
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1. Opt for refillable options wherever possible. Makeup brands like Kjaer Weiss have refillable packaging so most of the line—which includes cream blush, eyeshadow and bronzer—is housed in sturdy (and sleek) metal that can be refilled over and over again. Other notable brands with refillable options include by Humankind, which offers refills on shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, hand sanitizer and mouthwash, and Oui the People, whose sleek rose gold razor is initially an investment at 75 dollars, but offers a 10-pack of blade refills for 11 bucks thereafter. 2. Swap out single-use wipes and cotton rounds. Try reusable rounds and muslin cloths that you can easily toss in with your laundry instead of creating more waste. (We love these organic bamboo rounds from Jenny Pantinkin because they feel super soft against our skin and are anti-microbial.) 3. Buy less products. We know how tempting it is to want to try every new buzzy product on Instagram (been there, bought that), but we’re making a concerted effort to only buy products we need and only buy them once they’re finished. 4. Switch to bar soaps. 2020 is the year of less bottles and more bars. Lately we’re seeing a return to the good ol’ soap bar over bottles of body wash. Better yet, there are now bars for everything—from shampoo to conditioner to shaving cream and even body moisturizer. 5. Look into recycling programs. Earlier this month, Nordstrom partnered up with TerraCycle to create an in-store depository program called BeautyCycle which allows customers to bring their used products into any Nordstrom store. Nordstrom then sends your empties to TerraCycle, where they are cleaned and separated into metals, glass and plastics, before being recycled or repurposed into new materials. Some other programs to check out are Back to MAC, which gives customers a free MAC lipstick for every six makeup containers returned, and Lush’s 5 Pot Program, which rewards customers with a free face mask after they bring back five empty, clean Lush pots. (Returned pots are sent back to their suppliers in Canada, where they regrind and remold the pots again and again.) Last but not least, Terracycle also has a longstanding program with Garnier that allows you to ship your used personal care and beauty products (for free!). Once received, these products are recycled and remade into other products—or in some cases, used to build eco-friendly playgrounds and gardens across the U.S.