Maybe you assume that all those plastic pots are easily recyclable.
But a new documentary series sheds light on the damage our obsession with cosmetics could be causing in the environment and shows why the packaging of many of our favorite beauty products can’t be recycled so easily.
Four people – three makeup fans and one who opposes its use – investigated for a BBC series called «Naked Beauty» some of the biggest challenges the cosmetics industry currently has.
Why can’t makeup packaging be recycled?
In San Francisco, two members of the research team met with Shilpi Chhotray, an activist from the Break Free From Plastic group, and ecology expert Martin Bourque.
Since 1950, only 9% of the plastic produced worldwide has been recycled. About 12% are incinerated, but most end up in dumpsters or dumped in the middle of nature, including plastic found in the oceans.
Many plastic waste from other countries ends up in Indonesia.» And it’s being dumped in areas like Southeast Asia,» Chhotray says.
«The United States has been sending its trash abroad for decades,» he says, and shows a video of a place in Indonesia that, he says, used to be a clean area dedicated to agriculture but has now become a ‘toxic dump.’
Garbage burning is Indonesia has been associated with cancer and respiratory problems.
Martin Bourque, for his part, says that some cosmetic products are made with non-recyclable plastic types and this is a matter in which the color of the packaging really matters.
Recycling black plastic products is difficult because plants use a beam of light to separate plastics.
As black plastic absorbs light, then the machine does not select it so it ends up being sent to a dumpster or incinerated.
«The idea we have created is that you can throw (all your material to recycle) into a large container and that in the land of fairies and unicorns, magic will happen. The reality is much rawer than that,» Bourque says.
Garbage burning is Indonesia has been associated with cancer and respiratory problems. Stuart Foster, director of the British NGO Recoup – promoter of recycling – tells the BBC that the size of the packaging is one of the main reasons why some cosmetics cannot be recycled, as many are too small to be identified and processed using existing technology in processing plants.
He points out that this is not an exact science, but smaller objects like lipsticks and small bottles will not necessarily be distributed by the machine along with the rest of plastic containers and tubes.
And when those products cannot find a new use, many end up incinerated to be converted into energy.
«While that’s not as good as recycling, in the UK they’re at least doing something with plastics, beyond putting them in a hole in the ground,» he says.
According to Foster, cosmetics containing microplastics and shine also pose a problem «because there is no way to prevent them from leaking into the environment.»
«This makes me feel pretty guilty because I’m constantly throwing these products into the container thinking ‘OK, that will be recycled and brought back to life again,’ says Chloe, a makeup artist and influencer Belfast which visited a recycling plant in San Francisco.
«But probably most of the things I use are not being recycled. I feel like I need to do something because there’s not going to be enough room in this world for all these extra things,» he says.
So what can we do to help?
We know there is a high demand for products that are less harmful to the environment, but Chhotray argues that the effort should focus on big companies and brands rather than consumers.
Chloe, a Belfast makeup artist (pictured right), said she feels guilty about seeing how the packaging of the products she uses is not recycled.» We really need to look at the big picture and put pressure on these big cosmetic corporations to make a bigger effort,» he says.
She adds that people should write to makeup makers, tag them on social media and let them know that more needs to be done.
According to Foster, one of the big obstacles is size.
«We cannot ask the cosmetics industry to start producing lipsticks 30 centimeters in size just so they can be recycled. Instead, we need to turn the system around,» he says.
It ensures that there could be more innovations in recycling plants to collect and process smaller products. More could also be done to reuse existing packaging.
In 2018, for example, a UK cosmetics company launched a group of packaging that could be refilled to reduce plastic waste.
«It is in the interest of cosmetics companies to pay more attention to this discussion on recycling and to get these systems up and running,» Foster says.
In a statement to the BBC, a spokesperson for the UK’s Association of Toucher and Perfumery Cosmetic Sofmpies (CTPA), said they are working with NGOs and industry groups to improve the collection and recycling of all the earths it’s from beauty products.