This is significant for consumers looking to brands and retailers for safe ways to look and feel their best, inside and out. In addition to increased transparency around ingredients, many players in the clean beauty industry are authentically doing their part to be mindful about packaging. By offering refills in reusable glass and metal tin containers, selling products “naked,” using recycled material and exploring packaging iterations that are better for the environment supports a cleaner product overall.
As climate change, plastic pollution and the health of the earth are probably top of mind for consumers in the market for clean and natural beauty products, a comprehensive approach is likely to pay off. But there is an aspect of the end-of-life of these items, clean or not, that is little known and often unaccounted for: personal care and beauty product damages and returns. There are a number of reasons consumers return health and beauty products (allergies, wrong shade or consistency, not their style, among them), and for the most part, despite having opened the product and rendering it unsellable, the consumer has the opportunity to return unwanted health and beauty products to the retailer.
The retailer is then responsible for disposing of the items in a regulated, orderly and sustainable fashion, which should be relatively easy to do…right? The fact that most personal care and beauty product damages and returns end up in the garbage is to be expected in a currently inefficient recycling infrastructure. However, what might come as a surprise is that many retail consumer products, including products in the health and beauty categories, when returned, expired, recalled or damaged are classified as hazardous waste. This means that improper disposal of personal care and beauty products, such as putting them into the trash, breaks US federal law.
The exceptions to these rules is when these personal care and beauty waste items are considered solid waste, rather than hazardous waste, and when they are recycled in certain ways. Due to their varyingly small sizes and multi-compositional material makeup; i.e., metal springs and plastic in a pump dispenser, most skin care and cosmetics packaging falls outside the scope of public recyclability. Thus, retailers may need to maintain compliance and solve for this waste safely and sustainably through private channels of their own design.
For example, San Francisco-based clean beauty retailer Credo has partnered with TerraCycle to integrate sustainability into the end-of-life for all the products it sells. A clean beauty company that strives to be eco-friendly with ethical sourcing practices, Credo’s credo entails safely recycling the cosmetic returns waste for its vendor and in-house brands, diverting it from landfills through proper handling. In addition, Credo hosts an in-store recycling program for difficult-to-recycle personal care and beauty empties, also through TerraCycle, rewarding clients with 20 Credo Reward Points for every empty item they bring in.
Consuming positively by outfitting its retail stores with products (i.e. toilet paper, hand soap, all-purpose cleaner) from brands dedicated to minimizing their impacts, offering 100% recyclable shopping totes made from 40% post-consumer recycled content and, of course, stocking brands like Kjaer Weis, which formulates products in a smart, weighted silver compact, a valuable, far-from-disposable keepsake item that is very easy to refill, Credo considers clean beauty from every angle.
Sustainability in clean beauty isn’t any one thing; it’s holistic. As it stands, the US Food and Drug Administration, which has banned only 11 potentially harmful toxic chemicals to the European Union’s more than 1,300, does not have to approve beauty and skin care products before they hit store shelves or the online marketplace (nor do they have the power to). Clean beauty brands are already positioned to command a premium in a competitive marketplace. Allocating the costs of compliant hazardous waste disposal toward recycling has very high ROI for brands looking for effective ways to differentiate.
While what is good for the immediate body and health isn’t always good for the planet (industrialized agriculture and cosmetics production have significant environmental impacts, for example), what is good for the planet is almost always good for one’s health. Consumers implicitly understand this, and will reward brands that communicate their efforts effectively. Cleaning up clean beauty can seem like an uphill battle, but it’s the businesses and brands on the ground that will give the industry the makeover it needs.
About the Author
Tom Szaky is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global leader in the collection and repurposing of otherwise non-recyclable post-consumer and post-industrial waste. In 20 countries, TerraCycle creates national platforms to recycle products and packaging that currently go to landfill or incineration, in collaboration with the world’s largest brands (e.g. Mars, PepsiCo, P&G), retailers (e.g. Staples, Target), and cities (e.g. Tokyo, New Orleans).
Through TerraCycle, Tom is pioneering a new waste management process, involving manufacturers, retailers, governments and consumers, to create circular solutions for materials such as cigarette butts, laboratory waste, coffee capsules and even food packaging that otherwise have no other path to be recycled.
Tom is the author of three books, “Revolution in a Bottle” (2009, Portfolio) and “Outsmart Waste” (2014, Berrett-Koehler) and “Make Garbage Great” (2015, HarperCollins). Tom created, produces and stars in a TerraCycle focused TV show, “Human Resources” airing on Pivot TV. Season 3 of the show aired Fall 2016. Tom and TerraCycle have received over 200 social, environmental and business awards from a range of organizations including the United Nations, World Economic Forum, Forbes Magazine, Ernst & Young, and the Environmental Protection Agency.