Product Impact: Packaging
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In this post we are going to discuss the environmental impact associated with the packaging of personal care products. If you haven’t had a chance to read our piece on product life cycle assessment, we highly recommend taking a glance at that piece first to get the wholistic view on the components of a product life cycle that we will be discussing. You can find our post on life cycle assessment here.
As we mentioned in our previous post about life cycle assessment, there has been an increased in awareness around the environmental impact associated with consumer packaged goods (CPGs). The media has focused the environmental impact around the product packaging, mostly plastic in particular. Our impact on the environment is more than what we see when we pick up a bottle off the shelf. It isn’t just about packaging material or CO2 footprint or any other single factor that has been a trending topic. There is more to consider about a product’s impact and ultimately our impact as consumers.
However, for this post, we will talk about impact related specifically to the “packaging” piece of the product impact, with the view that it is only one segment of what to consider when purchasing a product.
Life Cycle Assessment: Packaging
As with product, the life cycle assessment of packaging components can be viewed with the same five main categories: procurement, production, distribution, use and disposal. To only consider the material (i.e. plastic, glass, paper) of the product is a skewed perspective.
With production, it’s nearly impossible for a consumer to know where the raw materials are coming from. In some cases, the brands aren’t even made aware of the source of the raw materials. Brands have to dig for information in order to achieve transparency in their supply chain. For small brands or new-to-the-market brands, it’s more difficult to get this information since they do not buy in the volume that well established corporations do. On the a cosmetic product’s exterior packaging, it is required for the brand to state where the product is made, but that does not indicate where the packaging is made. The packaging could be sourced from anywhere in the world. The resources that go into the manufacturing process should also be considered. One material may consume more energy and natural resources (water, oil, wood) to manufacture into it’s final packaging form.
As mentioned in the production step, you don’t know where the packaging is made. That also means as a consumer, you don’t know how far the packaging travels to get to you. The raw materials for the packaging could come from anywhere in the world and then are shipped to a facility to be manufactured into their final format. Those finished components are then shipped to a manufacturer to be filled with the cosmetic products themselves. Then, those filled units are packaged and shipped to a warehouse, if not multiple warehouses. Finally, that product is either shipped to a store or to directly to you.
The packaging of your personal care product travels quite a ways to get to you. What is the greatest environmental impact during all this transportation? You’ve probably guessed it- the fuel consumed to ship this packaging all over. There are two major factors that impact fuel consumption- volume and weight. Therefore, something heavy and rigid like glass consumes a lot more fuel than a plastic or paper. It should also be considered that materials like plastic can be bulk packed without cardboard separators between them, whereas glass has to be packaged with additional material in order to avoid breaking during shipment.
This is where safety comes into play and consumer safety is a top priority for personal care brands. Ultimately, this is why there is a lot of plastic used. Products designed for wet or humid environments will most likely come in plastic. Products designed for children will most likely come in a plastic package as well. Same goes for travel. If a product is being tossed in and out of bags, it will most likely be in a plastic container for consumer safety. Some products have the opportunity to be placed in packaging like glass, that are made for adults and are to be kept in locations where they are not in reach of children. Glass is great for stability of cosmetics and there are certain ingredients that require glass containers to be shelf stable for even a 6 month period. Paper can be used to store materials that aren’t a liquid and aren’t moisture sensitive. Products like chapsticks or deodorants have the option for paper. Unfortunately, a majority of cosmetics would not be able to be contained in paper due to loss of product efficacy impacted by moisture or humidity, ultimately reducing shelf stability and therefore safety.
The disposal of a product’s packaging is greatly impacted by the consumer. It’s the responsibility of brands to educate consumers on how to properly recycle and it’s the responsibility of the consumer to follow the steps provided by the brand. Terracycle is leading the recycling of the unrecyclable and has established partnerships with personal care brands like Burt’s Bees, Colgate, EOS, Josie Maran, Tom’s and more. You can also take your cosmetics to be recycled at a Terracycle recycling location which is available through a number of retailers. Some retailers even give rewards for recycling like Credo Beauty does.
Ultimately, cosmetic brands need to be able to offer packaging that can be more easily recycled or composted by consumers.
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