We are going to discuss the environmental impact associated with packaging components of personal care products. If you haven’t had a chance to read our post on product life cycle assessment, we highly recommend taking a glance at that piece first to get a foundation 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 (LCA), there has been an increase in awareness around the environmental impact associated with consumer packaged goods (CPGs). The media has focused on the environmental impact of product packaging, plastic in particular. Our impact on the environment isn’t just about packaging material or CO2 footprint, or any other trendy environmental topic du jour. There is more to consider about a product’s impact and ultimately our impact as conscious consumers.
However, for this post, we will talk about product impact related specifically to the “packaging” component. This is discussed with the understanding that it is only one segment of what to consider when purchasing a product.
Life Cycle Assessment: Packaging
As with the product itself, the life cycle assessment of packaging components can be viewed with the same five main categories:
To only consider the material (i.e. plastic, glass, paper) of the product is a skewed perspective.
The resources that go into the production process is something that as a consumer, we will never see. However, that being said, we can make assumptions based on available data. There are many sources to find information on material production. This study titled “A life cycle assessment of packaging options for contrast media delivery: comparing polymer bottle vs. glass bottle” found the plastic bottle exhibited lower impact in all impact categories considered, regardless of factors like bottle size, manufacturing energy input, recycled content of glass used, scrap rate, distribution transport (air vs. ocean), and even the choice of impact assessment method used to evaluate this comparison in the first place. This study resulted in similar findings that plastic had a lower environmental impact than glass with 46% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 55% less energy, 39% lower impact on ecosystem quality and 59% less resources. Every single other impact category was lower by 23% to 43%. This just gives some insight into material impact alone. We aren't saying plastic is the answer by any means. We are just showing the impact looking at the processing of a material alone. This topic will be something we elaborate on in another blog post, but for now we will leave it here.
It’s nearly impossible for a consumer to know where the raw materials are being sourced from unless the brand discloses the material sources on their website. In some cases, the brands themselves are not given the source of their packaging’s raw materials. Brands have to dig for information in order to achieve transparency in their supply chain, which has been a challenge in the cosmetics industry. For small brands or brands preparing for their first launch, it’s more difficult to get this information since they do not have the purchasing power that well established corporations do. On a cosmetic product’s exterior packaging, it is required that the brand state where the product is made, but that doesn’t include anything about where the packaging components are made. The packaging could be sourced from anywhere in the world.
Raw Materials (paper fiber, plastic resin, recycled plastic pelleter, etc.) → Packaging Component (box, bottle, cap, jar, etc.) → Manufacturer/Copacker → Warehouse → You
Looking at this material flow, you could even have a scenario where post-consumer plastic is being shipped to China, then the processed pellets are transformed into post-consumer resin (PCR). That resin then ships to South Korea, where the resin is turned into a bottle. That bottle could then be shipped to Australia to be filled with product. Then, finally, that product is shipped to the United States to be sold to you. This situation is much less sustainable than a virgin plastic bottle being manufactured in the US, filled with product in the US and then sold in the US.
Consumer safety is a top priority for personal care brands. Ultimately, this is why you still see so much plastic packaging, especially for products designed for wet or humid environments, like your shower or bathroom in general. Products designed for children or travel will most likely come in a plastic package, as well. If a product is being tossed in and out of a purse, gym bag, or luggage, it will most likely be in a plastic container - again, with consumer safety top of mind. Some products can be safely packaged in glass, like those made for adults and meant to be kept in locations out of the 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 liquid or moisture sensitive. Products like chapsticks or deodorants are two great examples. Unfortunately, a majority of cosmetics can’t be packaged in paper due to decreased product efficacy impacted by moisture, humidity, or oxidation, ultimately reducing shelf stability and therefore safety.
While it’s the responsibility of brands to educate consumers on how to properly dispose of their products, ultimately the end user determines what happens to the cosmetics, product and packaging, after the point of purchase.
Terracycle is leading the way in recycling the unrecyclable. The company has already established partnerships with a number of personal care brands, like Burt’s Bees, Colgate, EOS, Josie Maran, Tom’s, among others. You can also take your cosmetics to be recycled at a Terracycle recycling location at a number of retailers. Some retailers even give rewards for recycling, like our retail partner, Credo Beauty, does.
Ultimately, cosmetic brands need to be able to offer packaging that can be refilled, more easily recycled with curbside recycling programs or composted by consumers. We will be speaking much more on how to dispose of your cosmetic products and packaging in a later post!
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