Your Makeup Routine Might Not Be As Eco-Friendly As You Think

With the ice caps melting and carbon emissions skyrocketing, it's easy to feel helpless about the dire state of our planet. But at some point, the conversation has to shift away from the doom and gloom and focus on action; the ways in which we can change our daily habits to ensure we're kinder to the earth in general. Eating less meat and recycling on the regular is a great place to start, but there are a few more steps you can take that will make an enormous difference — and it all begins with your makeup drawer.

A report from the Environmental Protection Agency states that nearly one-third of waste in landfills is created by personal-care products, which includes everything from shampoo bottles to foundation tubes. The beauty industry as a whole has moved toward more thoughtful, environmentally-friendly policies, with numerous brands promoting their efforts to be zero-waste, or using a refill system to cut down on it. But in all actuality, making a single beauty product that is fully recyclable is surprisingly — and frustratingly — difficult.

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Āether Beauty founder Tiila Abbitt, who previously worked at Sephora as a senior director of product development specializing in sustainable materials, knows this well. "I've always been a packaging junkie," Abbitt says. "I worked on the sustainability team at Sephora leading research development, so I was always trying to research and find greener alternatives, but so many brands wanted to put the client and their needs first over the environment." With her own brand, Abbitt was able to create the first-ever entirely recyclable eyeshadow palette — and you still can't just throw the entire thing into a recycling bin without taking out the little tin eyeshadow pans first.

"It's the first palette without any mirrors or magnets, and that’s not really done," Abbitt says. "I even had to research the paper and ink I was using in this to make sure it could go back into the [recycling] system. Making little tweaks like that, there’s a market for it. If you look at the natural beauty space right now where they claim to have sustainable packaging, there's often parts of it that people don't know about that aren't actually recyclable. Like, you can recycle the glass bottle, but not the plastic lid."

The average consumer simply isn't aware of all the tiny details — the little parts of your beauty products that make them not recyclable, and therefore not-so-eco-friendly after all. Ahead, Abbitt breaks down the top five product components you didn't even know were non-recyclable. Prepare to be shocked.

Mirrors

Despite mirrors being mostly glass, they're basically impossible to recycle, partly because of the reflective coating painted on to the back of the glass.

To recycle regular glass, companies usually have to crush it into small pieces, which are then put into a furnace and combined with other virgin materials to make new glass. That shiny mirror coating, and the mixed-glass material that the mirror may be made of, makes that process impossible.

So if you're trying to give your dollars to companies that are environmentally thoughtful, avoid purchasing from brands that have mirrors inside their compacts — as difficult as that may be to imagine.
Pumps

"There’s not a pump in the industry that’s recyclable," Abbitt says — not one.

Although you would think that all plastic is recyclable, there's actually a complex coding system in place that makes that not the case at all. Different plastics get recycled differently in every state. In most pumps right now, there are various different plastic materials, all with different codes/numbers, and if you don't painstakingly take the pump apart section by section (which may be impossible without proper tools), then that little dude is going in the trash.

As an alternative, tubs, on the other hand, tend to have just one type of plastic as a base.
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Applicators

Similar to pumps, applicators — like mascara wands or doe-foot concealer/lip gloss applicators — are often made of various tiny parts made of various kinds of plastic, rendering the whole thing non-recyclable.

Think of it this way: While the tube might be one simple type of plastic or glass, which is recyclable, the applicator itself isn't. There's the stick, the tip at the end with the foam, and then the lid, which may have different kinds of plastics inside of there, too. Even if they're all technically plastic, again, that doesn't mean they can be recycled. "Nobody’s sitting there and taking them apart," Abbitt says. "If you throw them all in, even if it’s all clean, they’re not going into the system." As with pumps, products packaged in tub form offer an alternative.
Magnets

Magnets are not in any way recyclable — which is unfortunate, because they're secretly in a ton of makeup products. Ever have a powder or eyeshadow palette that miraculously snapped shut? There was probably a magnet snuck inside there that'd make the entire thing non-recyclable. Bummer.
Makeup Brushes

Even vegan makeup brushes, which use plastic or nylon rather than animal hair, are not recyclable — in fact, there's actually no makeup brush out there that is.

"That is something that hurts me," Abbitt says. "In order to create vegan brushes, all that is is plastic and they can only use virgin plastic. On top of that, it's glued to a feral [the part that connects the handle to the brush]. Unless you're sitting there breaking everything apart, you might be able to recycle the brush handle, but who's doing that?"

The most eco-friendly option here would be to invest in a really good makeup brush cleaner, and try to replace your set as infrequently as possible.
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