The Unsustainable Truth About Travel-Size Beauty Products

Photographed by Kate Anglestein.
This story was originally published on 5th February 2020.
Whether it’s your signature fragrance shrunk to miniature proportions or a diddy eyeshadow palette that can be slipped into a pocket, there’s something perennially charming about a teeny tiny version of your favourite beauty product.
While the beauty world has always favoured minis (especially popular in gift sets or trial kits, which include smaller, more portable sizes), our obsession with minuscule products has grown tenfold in recent years. The industry has vied to take a chunk out of the booming subscription box market, which is expected to be worth over £1 billion by 2022, and few major brands have resisted the advent calendar craze, packaging their mini bestsellers behind 24 doors for customers to open in the run-up to Christmas.
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However, minis are not just for the holidays, nor are they merely gifts; they’ve become a beauty category in their own right. Take a quick peruse around any high street beauty store or pharmacy and you’re likely to see at least one aisle stacked high with petite products, laid out like Instagrammable pick 'n' mix for beauty devotees to display in their #shelfies. Visit any popular online beauty hub and you'll find entire tabs dedicated to hundreds of small products under Minis, Travel Size Beauty and Travel Minis. What impact are these adorable products having on the environment?
Claudia Gwinnutt, founder of Circla, a pioneering reusable mini beauty product company, points out that the percentage of minis that gets successfully recycled is as small as the products themselves, posing a significant problem to the environment. "Recycling facilities have equipment that removes small pieces of plastic and diverts it to landfill where it takes hundreds if not thousands of years to biodegrade," she told R29.
Clare Varga, head of beauty at trend forecasting agency WGSN, identifies the 'fun factor' as a driver for this trend. "You simply can't underestimate the consumer appeal of anything made miniature," she said. But there's more at play here. "There is a perfect storm of seemingly unrelated factors converging," said Clare. Firstly, the trend for micro products is being driven by the commitment-phobic generation. "Minis allow beauty-loving but notoriously non-brand-loyal millennials to try out different brands and products at a lower cost, while also taking up far less space in their small-but-functional living spaces," Clare said. Secondly, the dreaded 100ml rule for liquids in cabin baggage plays a big part. Hands up if you’ve been burned by trying to stuff all your skin, hair and makeup essentials into one small plastic bag in the departure hall? "The rise of wellness tourism and 'in-flight beauty regimes' has increased demand for travel and security-friendly products," Clare added.
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It’s hardly surprising that a bottle which only houses enough serum for a city break is a sustainable packaging nightmare. It’s estimated that around 100 million miniatures are purchased every year in the UK, equalling around 980 tonnes of plastic waste. Considering that only 9% of plastic packaging ever produced has been recycled, a vast number of these minis are ending up in landfill. What's more, we tend to leave our holiday minis in the bin at our destinations, burdening the countries we travel to with this hard-to-manage packaging.
The mindset of single-use and short-term encourages waste, too. "If you don’t use the full amount, it’s hard to ensure the product keeps its integrity, especially for skincare. Anything left just won’t get used and you’ll end up buying something new again the next time you travel," Zahra Broadfield, founder of sustainable beauty retailer, SUST Beauty noted.
Change is afoot, though, and Clare predicts that in 2020 the mini trend will be shaped by sustainability. "We're expecting to see more refillable options and brands supplying mini bottles which allow small amounts of the product to be decanted." And packaging concepts are set to get even more creative. "We’re seeing innovative solutions such as stackable options and airless delivery systems that stay sterile and therefore have longer lifespans," continued Clare. "Most excitingly, we're even spotting zero-waste bottles made from actual ingredients like soap that dissolve in water and can be used as a product themselves." Take Lush's popular Naked Shower Gel, for example.
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The hotel industry, one of the worst for tiny toiletries according to research, is beginning to change, too. In California, a bill has been passed to ban single-use plastic bottles at hospitality establishments by 2023 and many major hotel chains, including Marriott and Intercontinental, have changed to dispensers or larger bottles. Considering that travel is inherently unsustainable (tourism is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions), anything you can do to reduce your footprint while abroad is only a good thing.
One brand leading the way at the moment is Circla. The sustainable travel toiletries company partners with eco beauty brands to offer their products in mini refillable aluminium containers. "Through the purchase of a Circla travel miniature you are diverting unnecessary plastic waste from going to landfill, supporting independent businesses and using a responsibly sourced and made product," Claudia explained. Circla miniatures are currently available to purchase at Luton airport departure hall (with drop-off bins in arrivals) and there are plans to launch in other airports and hotels soon.
In the meantime, customers can do their bit to cut back on minis in other ways. Stocking up on solid products while travelling is a good shout. "They avoid packaging and water, have a much lower carbon footprint than liquids, won't leak in your hand luggage and can save you money," commented Brianne West, founder of zero-waste beauty brand, Ethique. Solid products aren’t just reserved for soap; Ethique stocks solid cleansers, hair products like shampoo and conditioner, moisturisers and more.
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Purchasing a set of reusable bottles for on-the-go is another easy win. Many websites and brands such as We Are Paradoxx offer aluminium alternatives to plastic, a material which can be recycled on an infinite loop. "Buy a pack of reusable mini bottles from a local store, fill them with your existing liquid product and take them with you," said Brianne. "Just make sure you bring them home with you and reuse them, though."
At home, buying maxi products is beneficial for the planet and your wallet. Committing to jumbo-sized essentials reduces your packaging output and often means you get more bang for your buck. Much like all things sustainability, it’s about lots of people making small steps. As Claudia concluded: "We believe that mini changes done consistently can lead to transformative outcomes."

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