The Unsustainable Truth About Travel-Size Beauty Products

Photographed by Kate Anglestein.
Whether it’s your signature fragrance shrunk to miniature proportions or an eyeshadow palette that can be slipped into a pocket, there’s something perennially charming about a teeny-tiny version of your favorite beauty product.
The beauty world has always embraced minis — they're especially popular in gift sets or trial kits, which include smaller, more portable sizes — but our obsession with minuscule products has grown tenfold in recent years. The industry has vied to take a chunk out of the billion-dollar subscription-box market, and few major brands have resisted the advent calendar craze, packaging their tiniest bestsellers behind 24 doors for customers to open in the run-up to the holidays.
However, minis are not just for the holidays, nor are they merely gifts; they’ve become a beauty category in their own right. Peruse any beauty store or pharmacy, and you’re likely to see at least one aisle stacked high with petite products. 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 says.

It’s estimated that around 100 million miniatures are purchased every year in the UK alone, equaling around 980 tons 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 landfills.

Clare Varga, head of beauty at UK-based 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," Varga says — but there's more at play here. "There is a perfect storm of seemingly unrelated factors converging," she explains. "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." Secondly, the dreaded 3.4 oz rule for liquids in carry-on luggage plays a big part: "The rise of wellness tourism and 'in-flight beauty regimens' has increased demand for travel and security-friendly products," Varga adds.
It’s hardly surprising that a bottle that only houses enough shampoo for a long weekend is a sustainable-packaging nightmare. It’s estimated that around 100 million miniatures are purchased every year in the UK alone, equaling around 980 tons 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 landfills. What's more, when we leave our vacation minis in the trash at our destinations, we burden the countries we travel to with this hard-to-manage packaging.
The mindset of single-use and short-term use in and of itself encourages waste, too. "If you don’t use the full amount, it’s hard to ensure the product keeps its integrity, especially for skin care," says Zahra Broadfield, founder of sustainable beauty retailer SUST Beauty. "Anything left just won’t get used, and you’ll end up buying something new again the next time you travel."
Change is afoot, though; Varga 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," she says. "We’re also seeing innovative packaging solutions such as stackable options and airless delivery systems that stay sterile and therefore have longer lifespans. 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."
The hotel industry — one of the worst for tiny toiletries — is beginning to change, too. In California, a bill has been passed to ban all single-use plastic bottles at hospitality establishments by 2023. Many major hotel chains, including Marriott and Intercontinental, have already made the switch to dispensers or larger bottles meant only for in-room use. 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.
Brands like Gwinnutt's Circla are already leading the way: The sustainable travel toiletries company partners with eco-friendly beauty brands to offer their products in mini refillable aluminum 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," Gwinnutt explains. Circla's miniatures are currently only available for purchase and drop-off at London's Luton Airport, though the company plans to expand its reach in the future.
In the meantime, customers can do their part to cut back on minis in other ways. Stocking up on solid products while traveling is a good place to start. "[Solid products] avoid packaging and water, have a much lower carbon footprint than liquids, won't leak in your hand luggage, and can save you money," says Brianne West, founder of zero-waste beauty brand Ethique. Solid products aren’t just reserved for body soap; Ethique stocks solid cleansers, hair products, moisturizers, and more.
Purchasing a set of reusable bottles for on-the-go is another easy win. Many websites and brands such as We Are Paradoxx offer aluminum alternatives to plastic, as aluminum 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," West says. "Just make sure you bring them home with you and reuse them, though."
At home, buying value-size 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 Gwinnutt says, "We believe that mini changes, done consistently, can lead to transformative outcomes."
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series