Sustainable Packaging for Cosmetics: What You Need to Know

Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

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Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.

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The question over the most eco-friendly packaging for cosmetics is a slippery one, and something sustainably minded companies have been grappling with in earnest.

There’s been a big push in recent years for cosmetics companies to clean up their formulations. But what if your new favorite non-toxic, eco-friendly moisturizer, toothpaste, shampoo, or shaving foam comes in a plastic bottle? Surely glass would be better, right? Not so fast.

Sustainable packaging is that which has a lower environmental impact compared to conventional options. This sounds deceptively simple. After all, sustainability can encompass impacts across the lifecycle of packaging, from resource extraction to creation, to use (and reuse) and recycling or disposal.

Sustainability also includes economic and social factors. This is because even when packaging is environmentally safe, it may not be financially viable for companies, meaning its use cannot be sustained. What’s more, the creation of some eco-friendly packaging may have a social impact, such as by diverting land used to grow food or clearing large swaths of rainforest to grow raw materials for bioplastics instead.

Why biodegradable packaging can be problematic

Some ‘sustainable’ packaging also falls foul of a lack of recycling or composting infrastructure. So, even if cosmetics or other products are shipped in biodegradable or recyclable containers, you might not be able to compost them at home, your local recycling center might not accept them, or municipal composting facilities may be unavailable. When this is the case, even the most eco-friendly packaging can just end up in landfill.

3 rules for sustainable packaging

In general, when talking about eco-friendly packaging, this means:

  • Materials: 100% recycled or natural materials
  • Production: Smaller packaging, cleaner and well managed supply chain, zero-waste and closed loop manufacturing
  • Circularity: Packaging that can be easily reused, upcycled, or recycled

As with many environmental questions, the ‘best’ eco-friendly packaging may come down to personal priorities. You may, for example, be more concerned about the negative impacts of resource extraction than you are on the ability of the final product to biodegrade. Or, you might worry most about chemicals leaching into groundwater rather than whether trees are being cleared to create farmland.

To help you figure out your priorities, you might want to check out a 2016 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This report looks specifically at food packaging and the impact related to production, transportation, and recycling. Though there are some differences between packaging used for food and for cosmetics, there’s a lot of overlap too.

OK, with all that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the best options for eco-friendly cosmetics packaging.

Is plastic packaging sustainable?

Let’s start with a look at the most common type of packaging used for cosmetics: plastic.

Some kinds of plastic are a decent choice for cosmetics packaging because they can be recycled and take less energy to produce than some alternatives. These types of containers tend to be stable enough to keep cosmetics hygienic and protected. They’re also robust enough to survive shipping and freezing or high temperatures.

High density polyethylene (HDPE) is one good option for plastic packaging. It is:

  • Always made without the hormone disruptor Bisphenol A (BPA)
  • Universally accepted at municipal recycling facilities
  • Lightweight (meaning lower carbon emissions during transport)
  • Reusable several times over

On that last point though, even HDPE is being ‘downcycled’ each time, meaning its efficacy is lessened and it eventually has to be disposed of in another way.

The downsides of plastic packaging include:

  • Not being endlessly recyclable
  • Originating from fossil fuels (petroleum and natural gas)
  • Having a huge environmental impact during extraction, processing, and disposal
  • Not being fully biodegradable
  • Often containing phthalates or other chemicals that can harm health
  • Giving rise to microplastics in waterways, soil, and even the air

A recent paper even found microplastics in the placenta of humans.

Plastic that is genuinely recycled is a decent option for cosmetics packaging, but I’d want it to be BPA-free and phthalate-free, and to be recyclable in turn. Even better if this is created from plastic waste such as fishing nets dredged from the oceans or other waterways as part of a clean-up effort.

However, even when plastics are taken to recycling facilities, they may not be properly recycled. This can be because they haven’t been properly cleaned, are mixed with the wrong materials, or are just not sorted correctly. An awful lot of recyclable plastic still ends up in landfill or is incinerated, creating toxic smog, often overseas. Only 9.5% of plastic brought into the waste stream was recycled in 2014, according to an EPA report. In contrast, 15% was incinerated for energy, and the rest (75.5%) went into landfill.

All in all, HDPE (or number 2 plastic) is the better type of plastic if you’re looking for a good compromise. This is the kind of plastic used for milk containers (though this is always virgin plastic because of food safety concerns). Reclaimed HDPE is commonly turned into household items such as toothbrushes, decorations, plant pots, and children’s toys such as those from Green Toys.

Are bioplastics sustainable?

Bioplastics hold a lot of promise as eco-friendly packaging materials. But, so far, a lot of this is just promise. Some plant-based bioplastics don’t hold up for long-term use and are better suited for single-use items such as takeout containers.

The more durable types of bioplastic may not be as biodegradable as manufacturers would like us to think. Some break down into smaller pieces (degrade) but don’t get fully broken down into soil (biodegrade). Some do biodegrade, but only in the exact right conditions, such as in industrial composting sites that aren’t widely available. When these types of bioplastics end up in landfill they definitely don’t have the right conditions to biodegrade as they’re usually buried under a mountain of trash, depriving them of light, microbes, moisture, and heat.

Compostable bioplastics can also contaminate the plastic recycling stream, causing a headache for municipalities trying to increase recycling. In the European Union, a ban is even being considered on oxo-degradable plastics (designed to break down when exposed to oxygen, water or air) because these aren’t breaking down as advertised

Bioplastics made with ethanol have their own problems. These are often created using what could be food crops, which is hardly sustainable. They also don’t decompose in many cases and are instead intended to be recycled. However, as with conventional plastics, these bioplastics are often not recycled anywhere near as often as we’d like.

Is glass sustainable?

This is a question we wrestled with when reviewing the best french press coffee makers. At first glance, it’s tempting to think that glass is the most eco-friendly packaging for cosmetics as it is recyclable, safe and non-reactive, endlessly reusable, and makes it easy to see what’s in the jar. However, unless you’re buying locally made and packaged products that you can pick up yourself, you’ll have to factor in the risk of breakages and consider the impact of the sheer weight of glass when shipping. Glass typically accounts for at least a third of the weight of a final sealed product, compared to 5% for plastic.

Glass is made from sand, soda ash, and limestone. These aren’t renewable materials, but they are abundant, and glass can be easily recycled. That said, these materials are mined, which takes a toll on the environment, and it takes a lot of energy to produce and recycle glass (heating to 2500 Celsius), meaning it makes sense to reuse glass containers as many times as possible before recycling them. Refillable glass milk bottles, for instance, use about half as much energy as plastic milk jugs, according to one EPA study.

For many manufacturers of cosmetics and other products, glass may be eco-friendly but it sure isn’t sustainable. This is because glass can shatter easily during transport, wasting both the glass and the product inside. In areas prone to freezing temperatures, this is a problem that makes glass untenable for months on end. That’s because as water (an ingredient in many cosmetics) freezes, it expands, which presses against the glass container and causes cracks or shattering.

Ideally, you’d be able to buy your cosmetics and toiletries at a bulk or zero waste store, where you can take your own containers to refill over and over again. And these containers could be simple Mason jars that are also usable as food storage, flower vases, toothbrush and pen holders, and so forth.

Is paper packaging sustainable?

Alright, so if plastic, bioplastics, and glass have their problems, what’s left? In short, metal and paper.

Paper is a great choice for many types of packaging as it can be sourced from sustainable forests (certified by the Forest Stewardship Council), recycled, and can be made without chemicals. However, paper-making is resource intensive and uses up lots of water, fossil fuels for transport and processing, and usually involves chlorine bleaching and other chemical processes that can create carcinogenic chemicals such as dioxins.

When done right, paper is easily recyclable and compostable. It is also relatively lightweight, making it a better choice than glass. However, for cosmetics and toiletries, paper has to be treated with some kind of water-repellent chemical (natural or otherwise) to ensure the stability of the product. This can mean the container is no longer recyclable, making it decidedly less eco-friendly.

Many paper products are also not quite as eco-friendly as we’d like to think, with manufacturers boasting that packaging is made with recycled paper even if it’s just 25% or so that is recycled.

All in all, paper packaging is hard to use for cosmetics, unless these are dry and are intended to be mixed with water at home.

Is metal packaging sustainable?

So, that leaves us with metal.

Light, durable, attractive to recycle, safe for use, and viable in cold and hot temperatures, BPA-free aluminum is a clear winner for cosmetics packaging. Aluminum also resists corrosion and has a lower melting point than glass, making it less energy intensive to recycle. Because this material is more robust than glass too, it means companies can use less of other packaging materials, reducing overall packaging weight and bulk.

Recycled aluminum also requires considerably less energy during manufacture (around 4-8% of that needed to make new aluminum from bauxite ore).

What about the downsides of aluminum packaging?

  • It’s opaque – unlike with glass and some plastic, you can’t easily see if you’re nearly out of your favorite product
    • Not squeezable – you’re going to want a wide mouth aluminum jar and a clean spoon or a dispensing pump to get at your lotions
    • More expensive – aluminum is initially more costly for manufacturers, but factor in breakages, shipping costs, and customer concerns over plastic and this metal become less expensive overall.

Stainless steel and tin are also options for eco-friendly cosmetics packaging. These metals (used to make soup cans and other food packaging) are recycled at a rate of about 70-90%, making them some of the most commonly recycled materials. The trouble with these, though, is that they may have been lined with BPA, which makes them less attractive as a container for products you likely use every day.

All in all, metal packaging made with aluminum or stainless steel are a great choice for a closed loop packaging system but BPA-free aluminum is best.

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