Sustainability and plastic

6 min read

Why sustainability isn't anti-plastic

I had an entertaining chat the other day. In the name of sustainability, a skincare brand (who shall remain unnamed because I’m not here to spill the oil-coloured tea) recommended reusing their glass bottles as flower vases. So, let’s imagine a parallel universe in which my skincare routine is super simple, just cleanser and moisturiser. In three months or so, these become two pretty vases and I pop some equally pretty flowers into them. After a year I have eight vases, and by the time I’ve finished my postgrad degree I’ve got a rather unwieldy collection of more than thirty, which makes my studio flat look like the world’s tiniest live-in boutique store. Also, that’s a lot of flowers.

Okay, now consider that in this universe, my skincare routine actually consists of a double cleanse, essence, and two each of serums and moisturisers (different ones for day and night, of course). Forget thirty bottles, by the time I submit my thesis I’ve amassed over a hundred of the damn things and I’m house-hunting because my skincare-themed indoor garden has outgrown my flat. How did this happen??

Sustainability in the beauty industry is a hot topic (heating up, hopefully, faster than the planet is (I’m sorry, were you not prepared for puns?)).

At this point I imagine you’ve seen the stats, read the articles, maybe even watched the documentaries —so I’ll skip my intro to why Earth Is Doomed And We Need To Colonise Mars, and why Big Beauty has a lot to answer for. Actually, credit where it’s due, Big Beauty does get some points here. Large conglomerates have fat wallets which means they can put money towards environmental projects, which in turn puts resources and power into the hands of sustainability experts. Of course, smaller brands tend to be better at directly making sustainable changes themselves instead of relying on carbon offset schemes, and a lot of them make sustainable living their focus. (I’ll avoid calling anyone a “green” beauty brand because I still don’t know if that’s green for natural ingredients (don’t get me started, or do) or green for eco-friendly, which aren’t the same thing.)

“Plastic-free” is a popular claim for eco brands who, curiously, tend not to mention if they’re also using renewable energy providers (fairly easy) or evaluating the full environmental impact of their supply chains (fairly difficult). Plastic is so demonised that most of us don’t blink when brands say they’re using glass and metal because it’s better for the environment— but as with most things in life, it’s not that simple.

Glass, metal and plastic all come from limited natural resources. Of the three, glass has the highest carbon footprint, largely because it’s so heavy to transport (ever tried going on holiday with a skincare routine all in glass?), while aluminium is lightweight but produced with hazardous waste material, which has to end up somewhere. Plastic — well, we already know. Plastic became such an unavoidable part of our lives because it’s a great material for making things — it’s waterproof, lightweight, and generally pretty durable (I thank the skincare deities I’ve never smashed a cleansing balm jar on the bathroom floor), which also means it doesn’t need maintenance or replacement as much as other materials. But when we toss plastic out, it’s only recyclable a few times, probably gets exported to other countries for processing, and might end up inside a whale.

So what are we supposed to do?

One possible approach is that if you can keep and easily refill the outer packaging then plastic has the lowest environmental impact, but if you’re going to throw it away then the infinitely recyclable glass and metal make more sense. Clearly there are lots of things to think about — that’s why it’s someone’s day job to look at the bigger picture, technically known as a life cycle assessment, to consider all the impacts a product will have from start to finish. To be accurate, you need a new assessment for each product so brands can’t really say if their packaging choices are more or less sustainable than others unless they’ve done the specific work to find out, although that might not stop them making claims anyway. (Of course, some things are obvious — cellophane wrapping on outer boxes is just excessive and annoying. I’ve never figured out how you’re supposed to tear it open other than picking with a fingernail at a glued-down fold, so let’s just quit it with those, okay? Seal your boxes with a biodegradable sticker.) It’s also important to note that life cycle assessments aren’t made equal. Some big pictures will only consider a material’s carbon footprint, while bigger pictures may also look at other impacts like litter, water use, or land use.

One strategy for dealing with (part of) the plastic problem is bioplastics. I’ve seen more brands switching to sugarcane bioplastics in the last few years and I mention it because someone else might make the same assumption I did — I figured “bio” meant it was biodegradable. PSA: sugarcane plastic is not biodegradable.While the starting point is sugarcane (and that’s the bio bit) instead of fossil fuels, the end product is chemically identical to standard PET plastic (classic case of everything is a chemical). Sugarcane is a renewable resource (we won’t run out of plants because we can always grow more) and captures carbon from the atmosphere, which is fab. Downsides are that having more plantations risks driving deforestation, water shortage (WWF calls sugarcane one of the thirstiest crops), and human exploitation in countries that are already vulnerable. So this needs to be managed as carefully as palm oil. And of course, bioplastic comes with all the same plastic pollution concerns if it’s not recycled or disposed of properly, so the fact that we can grow it on trees isn’t super reassuring.

What solutions are out there?

Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit despair-y I like to scroll through lists of sustainable beauty initiatives. (Is this weird? I assume I’m not the only one since beauty journalists are out there writing them.) A scheme that stuck out to me involves bringing back 10 empties to a brand (to be recycled) in return for travel-sized products. My internal alarm bells are ringing because we know that minis are an inefficient use of material — compared to full-sized products, they need more packaging relative to the amount of product they hold inside (also known as a higher surface area-to-volume ratio, which incidentally is the excuse I give for being a small person who is always cold). They’re also difficult to recycle (mini products, not mini people). A lot of the processing in a recycling plant involves equipment that shakes, sorts and moves the materials around, and smaller items (regardless of material) often “shake out” — they tend to fall off the conveyor belt and into a pile that goes to landfill. So anything that encourages the supply & demand of beauty minis (cute though they are) is, in my frustrated opinion, unnecessary.

Which reminds me...

Here’s some unnecessary marketing (and maybe a little bit of shade) — I’ve seen a brand claim “zero waste” because their packaging is made out of materials that can be recycled (paper, aluminium). I did a double take when I read that, because when did recyclable trash become not-trash? It’s still called a recycling bin, no?

(We do love our recycling bins though. Anyone else feel good on bin night if the recycling is more full than general waste? And it’s so easy —just throw stuff in the recycling and tada! Saved a turtle. It’s just everything else that’s hard.)

So — there is no perfect material.If it doesn’t grow in soil, then it’s a limited resource, probably creates air & water pollution during production/transport, and might end up inside a whale. If it does grow in soil, then it’s taking up freshwater, might be a driver for deforestation or biodiversity loss, and occupies land that would better serve locals if used for food crop. A single-use bottle is problematic no matter what it’s made from, whether that’s plastic, glass, metal, or unicorn tears — and there’s the root of our problem. Throwaway culture: we buy new things to fill up our lives and fill up our bins. And that’s why reduce has to come before reuse, recycle.

This article was originally published on Medium which you can read by clicking here. This piece has been republished with the author's permission.

Michelle Wan

Michelle is an unofficial beauty enthusiast and official science nerd. She is a postgraduate student with the AI for Environmental Risks CDT at the University of Cambridge and began her undergraduate journey as a Biological Natural Sciences student, before defecting to Chemistry and going on to complete her Master’s degree in Atmospheric Chemistry. Most of her weekdays involve group meetings about machine learning and climate science, and hyper-focused hours writing code on her computer. She is a big fan of lumbar support. Michelle spends her free time powerlifting, music-making, article-writing, photo-taking and book-reading. In lockdown, she has retained most of these hobbies and Michelle also wanted to note her re-discovery of ice-cream, which she highly recommends.

Her articles can be found here [] and photos scrolled through here [].

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