Photo by Dan Lewis.
The internet is abuzz with comments on refillable cosmetics at the moment, with many commentators questioning how much more sustainable a refills’ packaging needs to be in order for the exercise to be worthwhile. The reality is that cosmetics, and packaging in particular, can be incredibly wasteful. And consumers finding products that are both effective and kind to the planet is becoming an increasingly more compelling reason for buying a given product. Brands know that. But brands will sometimes aim to reduce waste in some areas without fully understanding (or worse: not caring) how their decisions may produce as much or even more waste in other areas of the supply chain in a fast attempt to market their products as planet-friendly. In other words they’re greenwashing.
However, cosmetic packaging is more complicated than packaging for products in other industries: ingredients can be temperamental, so keeping them in optimum conditions will ensure efficiency. We’re going to unpack which types of packaging are the most eco friendly, and we’ll try to shed some light on when buying refillable really is the most conscious option out there.
Plastic, versus glass, versus other options
When it comes to packaging cosmetics, options are, relatively speaking, pretty limited. Cosmetics have been traditionally sold in glass or plastic containers, with some brands opting for aluminum tubes. Now, there are lots more options, many of which are branded as being eco-friendly. These include bamboo, paper, cornstarch, and even beeswax materials that are all able to keep certain cosmetics safe between manufacturing and consumption.
In terms of which is most eco-friendly, it’s complicated. Glass is fully recyclable, and can often be made from either recycled materials or glass waste. But it’s also heavier than other options, meaning it takes more fuel for it to be transported. A 2020 study even found that in the case of beverages glass bottles are potentially worse for the environment than plastic due to the extra fossil fuel needed to make and transport them.
Bioplastics are also being explored within the industry, with some packaging companies converting machinery that was once used to mold plastic. Bioplastics are attractive because they offer a similar level of protection for the ingredients contained in products, without creating more plastic that will take centuries to biodegrade.
Other packaging options such as beeswax and cornstarch are better suited to dry cosmetics such as powders, because active ingredients for products in liquid form including retinols and antioxidants usually need to be kept airtight and away from light.
The refill conundrum
Let’s be honest: we all love good packaging. One of the fun elements of buying cosmetics is creating a collection of products that look cute in your bathroom or bedroom, and that make you feel great too. Cosmetics companies know that too. They know that the majority of consumers want products to look cute and be eco friendly. Cue the refills. The idea behind refillable cosmetics is sound: you purchase a cute version the first time, keep it in the long run, and top it up with a minimally wasteful refill whenever you want to. But in practice it doesn’t always work well.
Firstly, the majority of people chop and change their skincare routines on the regular. So you might buy the cute (and more wasteful) packaging, not enjoy the product and throw the whole thing out. The consumer’s intentions would have been in the right place at the time of purchase, and the brand scored its marketing points for being ‘green’ and in the end the amount of waste was the same - if not worse.
Secondly, the concept only works if the packaging for the refill is genuinely minimal. The current backlash being faced by some brands is that their refill packaging is solid enough to work as standalone packaging, undermining the entire reason for the refill concept. The questions being asked revolve around what classifies as a refill. Should you only be able to call it a refill if it uses a certain amount less packaging than the original format? Should the term be regulated? And what alternatives are there to make the industry less wasteful?
Certain products (generally ones that don’t contain active ingredients) are already being sold in pouches that can be used to refill solid bottles. With the idea being that the pouch is both lighter than solid packaging (aka it will use less fuel to transport) and it uses less raw material in the first place. But when it comes to “active”-based skin care in particular, there’s a sticking point when it comes to preserving a product’s efficacy.
A focus on reusing and recycling
Some experts are calling for the focus to shift toward looking at how packaging can be recycled more efficiently, and how recycled materials can be used to make packaging. Minimizing waste on the whole will be far more efficient in the long run, as opposed to continuing to produce elaborate packaging that isn’t easy to be recycled - but that can potentially be refilled.
Sample size products are a prime example of this, you will often find that skincare brands commission mini versions of their regular products to distribute as samples or in subscription boxes, but the amount of plastic used to package a tiny amount of product is not sustainable in the long term. Moving toward a model where consumers can test a full size product, and then buy a jumbo size if they love it, will see the amount of wasted packaging - and product - reduced in the long run.
If you then remove single use plastics entirely, and encourage brands to use recycled and recyclable materials instead, you will be supporting a circular packaging economy. Best of all, you will get to try a product for longer to understand how they truly work on your skin, and the industry can gradually move away from its wasteful roots.