For beauty enthusiasts, there's no joy like testing out new releases or standing behind the belief that you can never own too many lipsticks — as you add two nearly identical coral shades to your shopping cart. That's how we end up with vanity organisers and overflowing bathroom cabinets, waiting to use up all our vitamin C serum so we can try another.
But what happens when you get to that last squeeze of foundation or reach the pan of your go-to bronzer, or even when you realise it's time to get rid of that blush that’s been sitting there for two years? Tossing your empties seems like the obvious answer — but that may be more harmful to the planet than you think.
When you send those compacts, containers, and lipstick tubes, you're essentially contributing to the pileup of unrecyclable plastics in landfills. Every year, 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the global cosmetics industry, according to a report by Zero Waste Europe; that's 120 billion units that will eventually need to be thrown out. Before the guilt trip hits you too hard, that doesn't mean you should lay off buying makeup forever — but there are ways to be more conscious of the recycling process.
To learn more, we spoke to Gina Herrera, Director of North American Client Services for the recycling programme TerraCycle, which specialises in hard-to-recycle materials. She gave us the rundown on everything you need to know about tossing your cosmetics in an eco-friendly way.
Research Is Key
Being more environmentally friendly with your makeup disposal can start with the purchases you make. “When considering best practices for a minimal impact on the planet, consumers should be mindful when making purchases for beauty products,” says Herrera.
There are a variety of different factors you can look into: You can look for products with recyclable/refillable packaging, or alternatives like makeup removal towels. You can also buy from brands that have recycling programmes: MAC Cosmetics, for example, has a Back To MAC initiative, where customers can bring in six lipstick tubes to be recycled by the brand and receive one lipstick for free in return. There’s also Garnier, which allows you to send their products (with the TerraCycle logo) to TerraCycle; with every unit collected, the beauty brand will donate two cents to the charity of your choice.
What You Might Not Know
It’s critical to know that simply tossing makeup products into recycling bins is not enough — and might not even ensure those products are properly recycled. “Where someone lives — as in, their local municipality — will dictate what can be recycled in their area,” says Herrera.“Each municipality has different recycling requirements, and consumers should check with their town to find out what can be put in their [recycling] bin.” This information could be found on your town or city's official website, or on Call2Recycle.org.
Aside from the technicalities of location, there’s also the fact that many makeup products cannot be recycled. The top culprits are anything with a mirror, pump, applicator, or magnet, and makeup brushes, too. "There’s not a pump in the industry that’s recyclable," Āether Beauty founder Tiila Abbitt previously told Refinery29.
Herrera also emphasises the importance of emptying out any excess product; this applies whether you're sending the packaging off to organisations or just putting them in recycling bins. Doing this ensures that harmful chemicals don't end up being thrown into waste streams as facilities have to physically remove what's inside. The best way to clean out the leftover product is to rinse out the packaging and put the excess into a sealed jar before sending it off to the landfill; this proper seal guarantees that chemicals aren't seeping into the rubbish, which is ultimately harmful to the air.
So, you’ve done your research and realised that some of your favourite products can’t be recycled. That’s where recycling programmes come in. Start off by researching to see if the brand that makes the product offers any initiatives; if it doesn't, that’s when you can look into organisations like TerraCycle. Signing up is free — and most programmes under the organisation are, too — and once you’ve registered, you can look into all the programmes offered and solutions like zero waste boxes. In the United States alone, TerraCycle has recycled over 16 million pieces of beauty packaging, and now works with brands like eos, Burt's Bees, and L'Occitane.
“Beauty packaging sent in to TerraCycle for recycling will be shredded, cleaned, and sorted by plastic type,” explains Herrera. “The plastic shreds will then be melted and formed into small plastic pellets that can then be moulded into a wide range of plastic products like plastic lumber, decking, and playground equipment.”
Lastly, it's also important to hold brands accountable and reach out to your favourites — whether it's through social media or a contact page — to create more sustainable packaging, offer recycling initiatives, or partner with third-party programmes. Many brands are coming to terms with the fact that a shift is desperately needed and are repackaging products to be eco-friendly, with zero waste brands also entering the market. Now, it's our responsibility to spend our coins wisely.