A simple Google search will lead you to dozens of articles on when you should throw away your makeup, but how to properly dispose of old cosmetics products is a subject that rarely get touched on in the beauty-sphere. While they may promise to enhance your appearance, beauty products that contain ecologically toxic chemicals — such as parabens, notorious for being used as preservatives in cosmetics, and triclosan, often found in makeup and skincare — can cause damage to the environment when they’re carelessly tossed in the trash or washed down the drain.
”Endocrine disruptors are among the most concerning for human health and for the environment, and this is particularly true when it comes to the marine environment,” says Hillary Peterson, founder of True Botanicals.
“Sunscreen ingredients [such as] oxybenzone and octinoxate bleach coral reefs, [while] synthetic fragrance molecules accumulate in the water supply, poisoning aquatic life. And it all comes back around — the chemicals persisting in the water supply end up in our bodies.”
Peterson also calls out surfactants, including SLS, SLES and TEA typically found in body washes, shampoos and face washes, as “they are very directly going down the drain [and] are toxic to aquatic organisms.”
But the content of beauty products isn’t the only source of environmental pollution. According to Philippa Duchastel de Montrouge, spokesperson for the Oceans & Plastics campaign at Greenpeace Canada, the sheer amount of plastic packaging produced by the beauty industry is just as threatening to our planet.
“Think of all the plastic bottles of shampoo, face wash, toner and other beauty products that are used and thrown away every month. We know that over 90-percent of all the plastic produced since the 1950s has not been recycled, and that currently in Canada only 10 to 12-percent of plastic waste is being recycled. So where is all this plastic waste ending up? It’s ending up in our environment, choking our oceans, in landfills or even at times being incinerated, causing air pollution and producing climate impacting greenhouse gases.”
As much as cosmetics brands and conglomerates are responsible for rethinking their products and packaging, beauty consumers are also able to help save the Earth by making more sustainable choices. There are more eco-friendly ways to declutter your beauty cabinet, for instance, than simply tossing the products away. So before you Marie Kondo your top shelf for spring cleaning, here are a few questions you should ask yourself.
Can the Packaging Be Recycled or Upcycled?
An easy first step towards enjoying beauty products responsibly is to diligently recycle emptied products. “When you have empty packaging that can be recycled, work to really be sure you are recycling all of the pieces properly or reuse the empty packaging for a new purpose,” says David de Rothschild, environmentalist and founder of The Lost Explorer Wellness.
For packaging that cannot be recycled in your curbside collection program, consider returning the items to the brand, or look to TerraCycle, a company dedicated to recycling conventionally hard-to-recycle waste.
“Follain uses TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Box that allows customers to recycle all empty product packaging. Once each box has been filled, we send it back to TerraCycle to be repurposed. These boxes can be found in each of our stores as well as our office,” says Tara Foley, founder and CEO of cult-loved green beauty retailer, Follain. She adds that the ultimate goal is to ”shift people to purchase products with more eco-friendly packaging.”
“[Recycle] all of the pieces properly or reuse the empty packaging for a new purpose.”
Another attainable solution to beauty waste is upcycling. Foley encourages makeup and skincare enthusiasts to get creative with repurposing empty packaging. For example, using jars as planters, spray and glass bottles as vases, and smaller containers as holders for jewelry and other knickknacks.
Are There Ways to Donate Beauty Products?
Pre-loved clothes and old household items are commonly accepted at thrift stores, but is it possible to find new homes for beauty products? ”There are many organizations that accept [donations] like Beauty Bus, [which] supports terminally ill patients and caregivers with new products,” Foley suggests, “and Share Your Beauty, which provides products to women and teens in crisis.”
Project Beauty Share, which supports women and families overcoming abuse, addiction, homelessness and poverty, also accepts brand new and lightly used cosmetics and personal hygiene products.
Wands for Wildlife, an Appalachian Wildlife Refuge program that went viral on the Internet earlier this year, receives cleaned, used mascara wands from around the world and upcycles the fine bristle brushes to remove fly eggs and larva from wild animals in its shelter.
In the U.K., a non-profit called Beauty Banks – co-founded by journalist Sali Hughes and brand and communications consultant Jo Jones – is committed to reduce beauty waste by collecting and distributing unused personal care and beauty items to local charities.
“[Sali and I] both work in the beauty industry and love it, but we’re also appalled by the waste of product. We independently became aware of a term called ‘hygiene poverty’ where individuals and families can’t afford to be clean and we’re obviously horrified by it. The idea of children going to school without being able to have a shower or wash their hair, wear deodorant or families having to choose between food and hygiene products because they couldn’t afford both was truly dehumanizing” Jones tells us. “So we started Beauty Banks with the simple purpose of marrying the haves with the have-nots.”
“Of course we are grateful for any brands that we receive, but to send a women’s refuge or care leavers’ charity parcels of luxury [beauty] products is priceless.”
The Beauty Banks has made donating beauty products relatively straight-forward and easy with a number of convenient ways to contribute. Its partnership with Easho allows you to purchase specific wish list items that people living in serious poverty would like to be donated. For those who prefer to donate unused products that have been sitting in their cupboard, the organization has also set up donation drop off points at a network of Superdrug branches and other businesses such as hair salons, nail bars and large offices across the country.
“One thing we do know is that you have to make it easy for people to help — you have to take away any friction to donate because people are busy and there are so many worthy causes they could be supporting.
But what’s been so inspiring is how many people want to do more than sending us products — they want to take action — get their workplace or community involved and do something more, or volunteer to help us pack boxes or drive and deliver donations across the country,” says Jones.
As insiders of the beauty industry themselves, Jones and Hughes also work closely with publications such as Vogue and The Times as well as YouTube influencers like Nadine Baggott to collate never-been-used product samples.
“[Unused press samples are] a real treasure for us, because supplying charities with premium brands and lovely beauty items like fragrances and luxury makeup can have a hugely empowering and self-esteem boosting impact,” Jones explains.
“Who doesn’t love getting a Chanel fragrance or an Estée Lauder lipstick? I know I do. Of course we are grateful for any brands that we receive, but to send a women’s refuge or care leavers’ charity parcels of luxury products is priceless. We would love and encourage any influencer who has an abundance of products they don’t need to consider donating them to us — or to a charity close to their hearts.”
Have You Given Beauty Brands the Feedback That They Needed?
On the topic of influencer marketing, beauty brands should also be mindful of the huge amount of waste they could potentially generate through excessive gifting.
“Brands can ask influencers what exactly they want to receive. I guess it wouldn’t work with everyone, some people want everything… but it would help me a lot,” says Yana Sheptovetskaya, better known by her Instagram moniker @gelcream. ”I moved two years ago but a big PR [company] still sends packages there.”
Digital content creator Karen Yeung, who boasts 1.5 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, shares a similar sentiment: ”It feels overwhelming every week. I love testing out new products and I’m grateful I get sent products for free, but there’s only so much one girl can use. I usually give my family or friends any extras I don’t plan on using. I actually have a large bin in my garage of freebies for whenever friends come over. It feels good being able to find these products a new home.”
“Businesses respond to consumer behaviour all the time so don’t be shy to speak up and voice your concerns.”
But you don’t have to be a key opinion leader in order to promote change within the industry. As Duchastel de Montrouge of Greenpeace Canada suggests, businesses tend to respond to consumer behaviour so it is important to voice your concerns and give beauty brands the feedback that they needed.
“From face cream to conditioner, mascara to hair spray, zero waste and health food stores are starting to offer the option of refilling your own jars and containers for your products. If you’re stuck on a favourite brand, ask them if they would oblige and you may be surprised by the answer. Smaller, local producers may be more willing to oblige.”
How Can You Shop Sustainably in the Future?
Not only is there a growing demand for sustainably formulated beauty products, but there is also a dire need for Earth-friendly ways that these products are being brought to consumers. “There are plastic alternatives that are becoming more prevalent around the world, but to bring about change at the scale needed, corporations are going to have to innovate as only they can afford to do [so],” Duchastel de Montrouge tells us.
With that in mind, consider supporting a beauty brand that employs sustainable packaging the next time you need to replace something in your beauty regimen.
“[We] chose easily recyclable materials, glass and aluminum,” says Peterson of True Botanicals. “Everything we make is certified nontoxic for people and the planet by MADE SAFE. Our ingredients are sustainably sourced, and our packaging is recyclable. Even with these constraints, we’re able to make products that truly perform. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice results for health – for the planet or for yourself.”
For those who’re looking to lead a zero waste lifestyle, you’ll be able to find a large selection of products designed with refillable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging at Follain. “A few examples are Follain’s refillable hand and body soap, Kjaer Weis‘ refillable makeup and Meow Meow Tweets‘ deodorant creams,” Foley suggests, “they come in only glass or biodegradable paper sticks.”
“Don’t buy with a disposable mindset. Buy with the mindset that you will use every drop in the bottle and then do that.”
Besides avoiding over-packaged products, doing your research about cosmetics companies on how they treat their employees, their community and nature is also crucial in helping you become a more sustainable shopper.
“We live in a time now where there is so many options for really great natural and sustainable products, you just have to be sure they are coming from a good source and have good intentions behind the company,” says de Rothschild of The Lost Explorer, a brand that prides itself on its facial and body care line formulated without parabens, phthalates, sulphates and synthetic fragrances or colors.
Above all else, beauty consumers need to be thoughtful about the way they shop. If possible, simplify your daily makeup and skincare routine to cut down on the amount of waste you produce. And as Jones of Beauty Banks says, “don’t buy with a disposable mindset,” but purchase an item only when you’re able to commit to using every last drop in the bottle.