When the urge to declutter hits, it decimates everything in its wake, including cosmetics. While it’s fine to be ruthless with your beauty stuff, most people forget that recycling isn’t just for the kitchen. We feel ya: The recycling struggle is real, plus it gets even trickier when you’re dealing with packaging that defies the norm.
Perseverance is called for. According to Betsy Dorn, director at RSE USA, a recycling and waste consulting company, who told Self, “There’s a huge drop-off in the amount of recycling that occurs when you move away from the kitchen.” And ignorance alone is not the culprit. According to a survey done by Unilever (which owns brands like Dove, Simple Skincare, and Nexxus), while a majority of Americans are aware that empty bath and beauty bottles are recyclable, only 34 percent take the extra step to put them in the bin—even if those steps are literally to take the product to the kitchen recycle station.
And just because most beauty products are small, when compared to a gallon of milk, for example, doesn’t mean it’s a small problem. The choice to trash instead of recycle has a huge impact: A Unilever report notes nearly 29 million tons of plastics is sent to landfills each year—many of which are bottles that once occupied bathrooms across America.
What’s more, according to a report by Zero Waste Europe, 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the global cosmetics industry, all of which will need to be disposed of. This doesn't mean you should lay off buying makeup forever. But until it becomes the norm that product packaging is designed to be sustainable and recyclable, we’ll have to take it upon ourselves to do more of the legwork.
Here are six important tips to help you recycle your beauty products.
1. Be proactive
Being more environmentally friendly with your makeup disposal begins at the time of research. When you are scrutinizing the product’s ingredients, for example, also consider how easy it will be to recycle. Seek out products with recyclable/refillable packaging. Develop your own code of best practices when it comes to your beauty footprint and how you want to minimize its impact.
2. Think lifecycle over recycle
Even better than recycle is products that last and last—many be used upwards of 200 times or more. Look into alternatives such as makeup removal towels. They are the nemesis for single use disposables: According to the BBC, “Face wipes take over 100 years to biodegrade, and make up 93% of the material in the fatbergs clogging up our sewers.”
3. How to curbside recycle
Examine the labels on the package to determine if it’s recyclable or not. The paper and cardboard boxes that products come can typically be recycled with paper, but look for the classic triangle with arrows symbol, called a Mobius loop, to be sure. However, just because you see the loop doesn’t guarantee recyclability—it tends to depend where you live. On plastic bottles, you’ll see a similar symbol with a number inside: These numbers (one through seven) identify the kind of plastic the product is made of. the most recyclable plastics have a number one or two; a number three denotes PVC, which can be particularly problematic to recycle. For numbers four through seven, you need to clarify your local community rules.
4. What not to recycle
The ugly reality of the beauty industry is that many makeup products cannot be recycled. The top offenders are anything with a mirror, pump, applicator or magnet, and makeup brushes. And small products, such as lipstick cases, or anything under a 6-ounce package size will get screened out of curbside recycling and tossed in landfill.
5. Research the beauty company
As beauty brands take the industry's environmental footprint more seriously, plenty of companies have come up with creative recycling programs that help make the entire recycling process easy (and even rewarding, by offering free products or discounts in return). Look up your beauty brand’s website to see if they have anything like it: Lush, M.A.C cosmetics, Garnier, Kiehl’s, everyday minerals, Zoya nail polish and Aveda all have individual programs.
Weleda, Tom’s of Maine, eos and Colgate and many other beauty brands have recycling programs through TerraCyle, a company that specializes in hard-to-recycle waste.
Two to know:
Garnier partnered with TerraCycle for a recycling program that allows people to send back their empties of any beauty brand— including shampoo caps, conditioner caps, hair gel tubes and caps and hair spray triggers — with free shipping.
Origins accepts product packaging from any brand in its stores (it’s my own go-to for empties). Origins, which launched its program in 2009, was one of the first beauty companies to create a recycling program for cosmetics packaging.
6. Know before you toss
Although it’s a hassle, many experts say you need to empty out any excess product; this applies whether your shipping it off to a company or just curbside. This is to prevent harmful chemicals don't end up being thrown into waste streams. Empty out and rinse the packaging: According to Self, Containers with product residue can attract bugs once they are at the facility, and dirty containers also lower the value of the finished recycled product.
Another recycling conundrum is aerosol cans. If the can is empty, recycle it in the designated steel or aluminum section at your local facility. But if there are still contents in the can, it needs to be brought to the household hazardous waste facility. Ditto for nail polish, if the jar still has any polish left in it.
Editor’s note: If you're thinking about swapping conventional products for eco-friendly ones, you may be interested in learning how to green other areas of your life as well. Check out our Zero Hunger, Zero Waste initiative for more information.