7 MINUTE READ
We get so many questions about cosmetic waste, not only for our own packaging, but for all cosmetic packaging in general. Since this is a lengthy topic and the recycling industry is constantly evolving consider the date of this post! We will make sure to publish updated blog posts related to this topic as we learn more, so that we can continue to share this information with you!
If you didn’t read part one of this series, Phase One: The Cleanout, you can find it here.
If you didn’t read part two of this series, Phase Two: The Cleaning, you can find it here.
Get Informed, Stay Informed
For the purpose of attempting to keep this article as brief as possible, we will only focus on how to recycle cosmetic packaging. Recycling capabilities are constantly evolving. New technologies are frequently being developed to optimize for sorting, separating and processing material. In the past you may have read something was impossible that could have changed by now. Or, there can be something listed below that could change even next month!
Another note, and probably the biggest hurdle to understanding recycling programs for all of us conscious consumers, recycling capabilities vary greatly by geography. Make sure to investigate the guidelines of your curbside recycling program.
Where Your Cosmetic Waste Goes
There are really two paths for recycling cosmetic waste that your cosmetic packaging can take - curbside recycling or a specialty recycling program, like Terracycle.
Path 1: Your Home → Collection: Specialty Program Recycling Drop-Off Point/Mailer → Specialty Recycling Facility
Path 2: Your Home → Collection: Curbside Recycling → Sorting Facility → Material Recovery Facility (MRF)
Specialty recycling programs make sure that the material stays out of a landfill. However, because they collect hard-to-recycle goods, it takes more time, more labor and more energy to sort, process and recycle. Therefore, it’s more expensive. These specialty recycling programs are usually private and funded by private investments or key players in an industry.
Ideally, curbside recycling programs should be the first choice for recycling goods. These supply chains are already established and there is a growing demand for timely post-consumer materials in new products, especially within cosmetic packaging. Prioritize curbside recycling when possible.
Tips for Sorting & Recycling Cosmetic Waste
Size and Shape:
Before we even get into materials, there is one step that will make this process much more simple. As a general guideline, almost everything measuring under two inches in more than two dimensions should be recycled with a specialty recycling program.
It doesn’t matter the material when we’re talking about size & shape (plastic, glass, metal, etc.). The reason for this is that the size & shape of the packaging greatly impacts where it ends up. Different MRFs have different equipment and because of that there is no hard and fast rule to follow. It’s obvious that in the breakdown of this study, bottles that are rigid and hold their shape are more likely to be recycled, which is why not all plastics are accepted at curbside recycling.
For all of your packaging, if it’s less than 2 inches in 2 dimensions, send it to specialty recycling.
The general rule to follow for mixed materials is that they should be separated. This means if you have a glass jar with a metal lid, separate them. If you have a soft plastic tube and a hard plastic cap, separate them. If you’re unsure on the types of plastic, separate them. Once separated, you can start sorting.
Most paper can be recycled curbside.
That being said, look at the packaging and see if it has anything indicating that the brand says it’s recyclable. Be on the lookout for packaging that has a metallic or holographic design. These types of finishes typically contain plastic and can not be recycled. However, if the packaging contains a foil stamp or emboss, which can be thought of like a tin foil being pressed onto a package, it is typically “recyclable” because it does not contain plastic. However, it’s hard to say if these foil and paper mixed materials actually get recycled since they’re hard to separate.
Researching this, I was able to find paper is usually shred, mixed with water and some chemicals to break it into fibers and then it is filtered to remove additional contaminants. It’s unclear if this contains metal. Additionally, as a beauty consumer, it’s hard to recognize the different types of metallic finishes on cosmetic packaging, so if you’re unsure it’s best to put it in the trash. Better yet, avoid purchasing questionable packaging to begin with.
Some paper products that are used in beauty packaging also have films that are plastic and therefore cannot be recycled. This is not to be confused with coatings. Usually you can peel a film off of packaging, but you can’t peel the coating off. That’s how you’ll know.
In all cases with paper, look for information on the packaging where the brand indicates that the packaging can be recycled. If this isn’t visible on the packaging, refer to the brand’s website for more information. You can always reach out to the brand as well for more information!
Plastics, Part One, Types 1 & 2: These are the most commonly accepted types of plastic at curbside recycling programs. However, that being said, it’s still important to note that you need to check with your curbside recycling program to ensure this type of plastic is accepted.
Plastics, Part Two, All Other Types (3-7): Most of the time, these plastics are not accepted at curbside recycling programs and should be sent to a specialty recycling program like Terracycle.
Glass: There is a myth that all glass gets recycled. Unfortunately, that’s not true. The recycling rate of glass in the US is only 26.6%. Not all curbside recycling programs accept glass, because the secondary market for glass is limited. In places like San Francisco, where the proximity to a wine region is close, there is a market for recycled glass. However, even a major city like Manhattan does not accept glass unless it’s in the form of a bottle or jar. That means, your beauty packaging (like that glass dropper), should go to a specialty recycling program and stay out of your curbside recycling bin.
Aerosols: Just like with any other packaging container, aerosols will not get recycled if there is remaining product inside. Therefore, if you’re looking to recycle an aerosol product, make sure there are no contents remaining inside of the aerosol can. Many aerosols are made of aluminum or steel, both of which are high-value metals and likely to be recycled. Like with any cosmetic product made of two materials with separate recycling streams, if that cap is plastic, it must be removed before recycling. Some curbside recycling programs, like New York City, accept aerosol cans, whereas others consider them hazardous household waste (HHW). You will need to research collection programs in your area.
Metals (Aluminum, Tin, Steel): Most of the time these materials can be found as caps on bottles or lids on jars in cosmetic packaging. If these lids are fused with plastic, they cannot be easily separated and should just be put in the trash as home. Yes this is the same with those bamboo/plastic lid combos- they’re not recyclable. If there is a liner then it can be pulled out and only metal remains- you can recycle it!
Check the Symbols
Definitely the most common symbol found on cosmetic packaging is the Mobius Loop. It’s also the most confusing symbol you’ll find on bottles and containers too, because it means the product is capable of being recycled. It can also have a percentage inside indicating the amount of recycled material that the current packaging is composed of. If this symbol is present, with no additional context, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) assumes the component is made with 100% recycled material and can be recycled.
For plastics, the Mobius Loop can also indicate the type of plastic. Numbers 1-7 are used to categorize material type, whereas mentioned above, usually only Types 1 & 2 are accepted curbside.
- PETE, polyethylene terephthalate
- HDPE, high-density polyethylene
- PVC, polyvinyl chloride
- LDPE, low-density polyethylene
- PP, polypropylene
- PS, polystyrene
- OTHER, can be made from multiple plastics including acrylic, polycarbonate, polylactic fibers, nylon, and fiberglass. Can sometimes be accepted for recycling. Check locally.
Meet the Green Dot. Another symbol that’s confusing, because it doesn’t even mean the product can be recycled at all. Instead it represents that a financial contribution has been made to a qualified national packaging recovery organization.
The least confusing of all symbols is the How2Recycle Symbol. This symbol indicates exactly how to prepare to recycle a product, where to find more information, how to recycle, what type of material the product is and what part of the packaging the symbol is related to. The barrier to entry here, especially for small brands, is the fee associated with the symbol. The symbol is also large and hard to place on cosmetic packaging in addition to the information outlined to be on a package by regulatory bodies. This symbol is most commonly found on food products and associated with larger businesses.
We know that was a lot, but we want to provide you with as much information as we can to help you make better decisions. Based on our research too, we are making packaging improvements set to launch later this year! And with that, our three part series on how to dispose of cosmetic waste comes to an end.
If you want to see more on this topic or have questions, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!