It’s no secret that plastic waste has become one of the planet’s most urgent environmental issues. Of the seven billion tons of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than ten percent has been recycled. The rest ends up in landfills and waterways, leaching harmful chemicals and microplastics into the environment and water supply. Though many industries are responsible for the onslaught of pollution, beauty in particular has been a major culprit: it generates 120 billion units of packaging each year, and around 95 percent of it gets thrown out after one use.
To combat this, a new wave of cosmetics brands have stepped up to rethink how we consume beauty products. United & Free recently debuted a multi-purpose balm that treats universally shared issues such as stretch marks and coarseness with a formula designed to boost collagen production and moisturize dry skin. Eschewing traditional packaging, brother-sister founders Brandon and Kaleena Morrison sourced custom-fitted sugar cane pulp known as bagasse, a compostable byproduct of the sugarcane industry.
Other independent brands such as Spectacle and Ethique have recently embraced green packaging using compostable ingredients. Mass-market mainstays, on the other hand, have been slow to catch on, but Colgate seems to be leading the pack with high-density polyethylene toothpaste tubes that will be compatible with recycling when they drop next year. (Still, there’s no telling if consumers will actually recycle them.)
Meanwhile, the refillable revolution might be finally picking up steam. Interest in refillables is at an all-time high—searches for “refillable fragrance” spiked 431 percent over the holidays according to Nielsen—but old consumer habits die hard. Still, some big luxury names are trying: Dries Van Noten and Chanel announced beauty lines with refillable lipsticks, fragrances, and moisturizers. Marc Atlan, a packaging designer who has worked for Commes des Garçons, Helmut Lang, and Prada, recently launched a body care brand called Uni whose unisex hand soaps, body serums, and shampoos are packaged in 100 percent recyclable aluminum bottles that can be sent back and refilled.
Nick Dormon, founder of the UK firm Echo Brand Design, says the rise of refillable beauty packaging dovetails with increased demand for more personalized products yet also moved beauty buying habits online. “Consumers have to adapt to new behaviors of beauty consumption,” he says. “Today’s consumer expects so much more when it comes to convenience—personalization as well as sustainability. A new wave of products is beginning to launch designed with refill in mind. These not only prevent excessive packaging waste but are creating new opportunities for a more personalized and inclusive solution.”
The beauty industry’s pivot toward refillable and compostable packaging is a step in the right direction, but studies show the pandemic actually worsened the single-use plastic crisis. In order to realize actual change, there needs to be a bigger and more radical shift. The world doesn’t need recyclable plastics, most of which will inevitably end up in landfills—it simply needs less plastics.