Before I was a staff writer at NYLON, I was an editorial intern, and one of my tasks was organizing our beauty closet. Sorting the dozens and dozens of new products sent to our editors each week was exciting at first, but the novelty wore off once I realized just how much trash comes along with each treasure. Simply put: There's a ridiculous amount of paper and plastic that come along with opening a new product—and only some of it can be recycled.
While the excessive amount of beauty packaging was made clearest to me because of the sheer volume with which I was dealing, it's also a problem for ordinary consumers. All our purchases really add up—and not just in price, but in terms of the amount of waste they produce. And that's not even counting the fact that the product itself might not be the most eco-friendly option: *ahem* sheet masks and products with glitter in them.
For everything you order online, there will be the box it comes in—likely filled with bubble wrap or packing peanuts. And then there's the product itself, which may be wrapped in plastic and is almost certainly housed in yet another smaller box. And all this is not to mention the potential waste the bottle itself may create once the product is finished. And even when you buy something in stores, it's been shipped to the supplier in a likely unsustainable way, and you'll walk out of the store with a receipt, shopping bag, and maybe some tissue paper. All of which can probably be recycled, sure, but many customers may not make that effort.
Of course, there are instances when packaging is necessary. "In some cases when it's protecting a product, then it really is playing a role," notes Sandeep Kulkarni, a contractor who works with brands to find sustainable packaging solutions. "But if it's just for aesthetics or just purely for a marketing standpoint, then that tends to be more wasteful."
And then there are other times when the product itself needs protection. "If you have a product that is really sensitive to oxygen," Kulkarni says, it may require packaging that has multiple layers and is less easy to recycle, because, without them, the product will "start breaking down and start to spoil more quickly."
Beauty industry watchdog Estée Laundry notes, though, that "in most cases, the extra layers are unnecessary, especially if the product is not easily breakable. The non-biodegradable packaging is simply a business decision," they say. "Non-biodegradable packaging is cheaper and more readily available than packaging that is eco-friendly and biodegradable."
Just today, Estée Laundry called out millennial-favorite Glossier as being a major offender for its pink bubble bags, which come with every purchase—even if customers don't want them. Though many customers have pointed out that these bags can be reused in a myriad of ways, others say that they'd rather just not get them at all and that they don't need multiple versions of them.
But while Glossier hasn't listened to its customers about eliminating those bubble bags for good yet—though, just yesterday, in response to a customer complaint, the company stated that "you'll be able to choose a limited packaging option without a pink pouch, stickers, or any packaging extras in online orders starting this summer"—a time might soon come when they will. "I think consumers have the final say, in a sense, because they are paying the money to buy these products," says Kulkarni. "I think it's their dollars that are going to do the talking in terms of companies having to move in a certain direction with their packaging."
Estée Laundry echoes this: "Consumers are the ones that are driving most of the change," they tell me, noting that there are other things that we can advocate for brands making a change. "Consumers can continue to ask brands to adopt more environment-friendly business practices; they can 'vote with their dollar' by supporting only brands that are making a conscious effort to be environmentally friendly; they can abstain from making any purchases that are unnecessarily; they can use only eco-friendly, sustainable products; and they can participate in recycling programs."
Our buying power already has made a difference in making brands more aware that we want their practices to be less wasteful. Estée Laundry notes that Glossier has responded to consumer's complaints by removing sticker sheets from orders and making an effort to remove plastic glitter from its Glossier Play line. "Glossier stated that they heard everyone's concerns and were planning to switch to biodegradable glitter in six month's time," they tell me.
Lush also offers a line of "naked" beauty products that are sold sans packaging. Ethique, another beauty brand, offers a range of solid hair and skin-care products—which is better for the environment—and packages them in compostable boxes. Clean beauty retailer Follain offers refillable soap. And this isn't just happening on a beauty level; Kulkani points out that Amazon now offers a Frustration-Free Packaging option for some products, which "is aimed at reducing or eliminating excessive packaging" and ensures that products are shipped in appropriately sized containers that are made from recyclable materials.
How can you best do your part? Beyond making sure to shop from green beauty brands, when possible, shop directly at stores, bring your own bags, and say that you don't want a paper receipt. It might feel like a small start—but it is a start.