As someone with a strong affinity for clean and green beauty brands, I admittedly haven’t always been the best about recycling my products once they’re empty. Sure, I’d always make the effort to throw an empty shampoo bottle into my recycling bin instead of my bathroom trash, but in my “efforts” to recycle, I was also throwing empty mascara or lipstick tubes in there, too—a major recycling no-no—mostly due to the fact that I was never quite sure what to do with them.
The fact is, recycling beauty products *correctly* is actually pretty complicated. When you take into account all of the different kinds of products we use, spanning skin care, hair care, body care, and cosmetics—and all the different, sometimes ornate, packaging they’re bottled up in—a majority of these can’t be recycled via your local curbside pickup. Instead they require being sent out or dropped off to special recycling facilities through beauty recycling programs (or can’t be recycled at all).
It’s common knowledge that our planet is facing a serious pollution problem, and despite global recycling efforts, it’s not really working. Take plastics for example: Only 9 percent of plastic actually gets recycled, and—an even scarier fact—79 percent of that waste sitting in landfills or littering the planet eventually ends up in our oceans (and even our fish). And as you can imagine, the beauty industry contributes heavily to this plastic waste. That said, it’s crucial that we not only collectively pull our weight and learn the ins and outs of recycling our products, but also that we be more mindful about how we shop for beauty products overall.
After chatting with a number of recycling and sustainable packaging experts, we put together a guide to everything you need to know about how to properly recycle or dispose of your empty beauty products, from plastic shampoo bottles to mascara wands and beyond, as well as a look into which brands are contributing to a more environmentally friendly industry overall.
EXAMINE YOUR PRODUCTS AND CHECK YOUR LOCAL FACILITY
The first step to properly recycling your products is to learn what actually can be recycled, what needs to be recycled in alternative ways—such as sending out to a facility or dropping off at a brand’s take-back program—and what is, unfortunately, deemed trash. “First and foremost, check with your local recycling facility on what they can and cannot accept,” says Sue Kauffman, North American public relations manager for TerraCycle, a recycling business that offers a range of national recycling platforms. “Also, look at the labels—often there are clues that tell you if it’s recyclable or offers a take-back program, like the programs TerraCycle offers.”
If you’re unsure of what to do with an empty or used product, there are a few attributes you should look for when deciding whether you can recycle a product conventionally—aka through curbside pickup—or not. As Elizabeth Schussler, senior director of social change, behavior, and impact at The Recycling Partnership points out, just because a product or box features a Mobius loop (the recycling arrow symbol) on it, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can recycle it. Confusing, right? If you’re unsure if you can recycle an empty, she suggests making sure it checks the below three boxes for material, size, and color. “Three checks, or it’s out!”
Material: The item must be one single material, not mixed. If the different materials can be separated (for example, removing a lid), then you must do so before recycling. “Recycling is sorted into large bales of like materials, so items must match a single bale and be able to make it to that bale through a sorting machine,” she says. “Things that are mixed materials are not designed for recycling, such as a plastic compact with a metal tray or mirror, or different kinds of plastic assembled together.”
There are a few materials that can typically always be recycled through curbside recycling pickup. “A good rule of thumb to remember: Items like glass, aluminum, and basic #1 and #2 plastics are generally accepted by most local programs,” says Kauffman.
Size: If your item is smaller than two to three inches, count it out. “Items [that small] are not designed to be recycled—even if they are plastic and have a symbol,” says Schussler. “Small packages will clog the process and do more harm than good.”
Color: Packaging with added color can actually deem a product non-recyclable while it’s being processed. “Glass and plastics are often colored, painted, or coated, and since recycling sorts and then reprocesses with a goal to get it close to its original state, the added colors and paints render the product not good to re-enter the larger mix.” She also mentions that dark or black plastics can rarely be recycled by facilities, since the automatic sorters can’t see them, so save those for product take-back and other recycling programs.
WHAT (USUALLY) CAN AND CANNOT BE RECYCLED
Glass jars and bottles: Glass is one of most recyclable packaging options out there—as long as you do your part first. According to Ashlee Piper, sustainable living expert and author of Give A Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet, you must first make sure that labels are removed, the jars cleaned thoroughly and allowed to dry, and lids removed. “Unless the lid is metal, in which case, those can usually go in with a mixed recycling system,” she says. Keep in mind glass nail polish bottles, as well as their caps and brushes, aren’t recyclable because they’re considered to be household hazardous waste (and, uh, if you needed a reason for why you should only buy nail polish that’s at least five-free, it’s this).
Plastic tubes and bottles: Plastic is tricky. Some plastic tubes and bottles can be easily recycled curbside, while others cannot or are not widely accepted in all areas. “On plastic packages, the Mobius symbol often has a number inside, which indicates the kind of plastic the package is made from,” says Schussler. Her guide to numbered plastics below:
1 stands for PET or PETE plastics, which are almost always recyclable.
2 stands for HDPE plastics, which are also almost always recyclable.
3–7 plastics must be checked locally, as they aren’t widely accepted at municipal recycling centers.
5s, or polypropylene plastics, are being accepted in more communities. A lot of beauty products are made from this material, so be sure to check if your area accepts it.
Remember, you still must take color and size into account. A black plastic cap can’t be tossed in the recycling bin, even if it’s made of HDPE plastic.
Cardboard/paper packaging and boxes: Most boxes and outer paper packages can be recycled as long as they don’t contain any extra materials or heavy coatings. For example, if a cardboard box had Styrofoam attached to it in order to protect a product, that will have to be removed. “Leaving it attached to a cardboard box would render the entire package unrecyclable, and it would be diverted to the landfill,” says Kauffman. “Your best option would be to try to separate the materials the best you could, and recycle the cardboard box municipally and send the Styrofoam to TerraCycle for processing using the Styrofoam – Zero Waste Box.”
According to Piper, if paper packaging has a super-shiny finish or metallic/glitter elements, it can’t be recycled (though some recycling programs like TerraCycle are able to recycle these, it’s not the norm). “Moreover, small, purely paper boxes and packaging are often better composted than recycled because items smaller than a Post-it can get lost in the sorter.”
Pumps: Pumps, which are typically made of plastic and contain a metal spring, are not recyclable, so be sure to remove them from any jars, tubes, and bottles that you do plan to recycle. “There are currently no pumps on the market that are recyclable curbside,” says Kauffman. “Most pumps are made of different plastic materials and metal springs that cannot be separated by a consumer or processed at most municipal recycling centers.”
Caps, spouts, and trigger-head sprays: These are also largely considered non-recyclable items, so be sure to remove them from any tubes, jars, or bottles you do plan to recycle. “Remember this: the smaller the item (think lids, caps, and compact cases), the more likely it will go undetected and fall through the machinery at municipal recycling centers, ending up sent to landfill,” points out Kauffman.
Lipstick tubes: These can’t be recycled curbside due to their smaller size, says Kauffman. “Most municipal recycling facilities are automated with optical and physical sorter machines. Small containers like lipstick tubes can get missed by sorting machines or caught in the disposal stream and will ultimately get sent to the landfill. Not to mention, they’re usually made of mixed materials that you can’t separate easily yourself.”
Mixed-material mascara wands, lip gloss applicators, and eyeshadow palettes: “These are tricky to recycle because they’re composed of so many smaller parts—the nylon bristles or a foam tip, the stick, and the handle,” says Kaufmann. “Each part is made from a different kind of plastic and would need to be separated and sorted to be properly recycled.” This isn’t always possible, of course, so they’re unable to be recycled easily.
Makeup brushes: Generally, these are a no-go when it comes to recycling. However, as Piper points out, there are a small number of brushes out there that can be recycled or at least composted. “A small cohort of natural wood handles (think Ecotools) can be recycled or even composted, but it varies by company,” she says. “If it uses 100 percent uncoated natural hair, the brush itself can be thoroughly cleaned and composted. But because most brushes are composed of a plastic or wooden wand, metal fastener, and synthetic bristles, the entire unit cannot be recycled together. It’s best to get as much life out of your brushes by taking good care of them and passing gently used ones to friends.”
Makeup sponges: These are also usually non-recyclable and will need to just be thrown away. “Unless it’s a very special type that’s made of compostable materials, these cannot be recycled to my knowledge,” says Piper.
Cotton pads: While these can’t be recycled, Piper points out that as long as they’re made from 100 percent cotton, they can be composted. “Just ensure there’s no nylon or other synthetic fibers or plastics in the pad,” she says. “Moreover, make the switch to washable and reusable cotton rounds.”
Hot tools: While you can’t toss these in your recycling bin, there are ways to make sure these items are still repurposed. “Curling irons, hair dryers, and other similar hair appliances can’t be put in curbside recycling bins, but they are accepted for drop-off at scrap metal recycling centers,” says Kauffman. Of course, if the item is still usable, Schussler suggests donating them instead.
RECYCLING AND TAKE-BACK PROGRAMS
The most important thing to keep in mind is that even if you can’t recycle a product municipally by bringing it to the curb with your kitchen plastics and aluminum cans, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s destined for the landfill. A lot of materials and packages that your local facility can’t accept can still be recycled through separate recycling programs.
For example, for a fee, TerraCycle can recycle most municipally non-recyclable beauty products through its Zero Waste Boxes, specifically its Beauty Products and Packaging – Zero Waste Box. A detailed list of what they can accept is listed on the website—which includes shampoo and conditioner caps, mascara tubes, and cleanser dispensers, just to name a few—as well as what they can’t accept, such as nail polish and blow-dryers. Put your empties aside, and send them out in bulk together.
Another option is to recycle it through a brand’s take-back program, in which a brand will accept empty containers of its own products—sometimes even from other brands—sans any shipping or processing fees. TerraCycle is behind a number of these, working with brands such as Deciem, Glow Recipe, Garnier, L’Occitane, The Body Shop, Living Proof, and Burt’s Bees, just to name a few. Sometimes brands will even offer an incentive for bringing your empties back; we’re all familiar with M.A.C.’s amazing take-back program, which lets you choose a free lipstick for every six empties you return to them. This is the best way to guarantee your empties don’t accidentally end up as landfill waste. It’s more work on our end, sure, but the earth deserves it.
Regardless of how you recycle your empties, you’ll want to make sure they’re completely cleaned and dried. “Excess product can render an item that otherwise would have been recycled non-recyclable, as it can contaminate the recycling stream,” says Kauffman. The same goes for water, as many recycling systems are unable to sort wet items, adds Piper.
HOW SHOULD WE BE SHOPPING FOR BEAUTY?
The most impactful thing we can do is to be more mindful about the brands and products that we shop, choosing to support those that are actually putting in the work to have more sustainable packaging (if any packaging at all), thus preventing us from having waste in the first place. Thankfully, there’s been a major movement in the beauty industry over the last couple of years, which makes shopping only sustainably minded brands much easier. From the influx of eco-friendly indie beauty brands that have cropped up over the years to mass beauty bigwigs like Unilever and L’Oréal vowing that all of their plastic will be recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025, we have lots of options. But what is best?
The obvious best option is low packaging or no packaging, zero-waste products—think bar soaps and shampoo bars from brands like Lush and By Humankind. Of course, this method goes well beyond soap. Vegan, clean beauty brand Axiology recently launched Balmies, the world’s first zero-waste, multi-use cosmetics. “This means no plastic and no packaging that ends up in the landfill,” says founder Ericka Rodriguez. “Sustainability has always been integral to our brand, but it’s something we actively work to improve on.”
Cosmetics brand Aether Beauty also follows this method, creating entirely zero-waste beauty products such as eyeshadow palettes made from 100 percent recyclable, FSC-certified paper, 100 percent recyclable pans, and 100 percent recyclable inks, while organic skin-care brand LOLI has created entirely zero-waste products, with everything packaged in recycled, recyclable, reusable, or EU-certified compostable materials.
Sticking with glass is another great option. “While no packaging would be ideal, looking for items packaged in glass would certainly be an overall better solution,” says Kauffman. “From the perspective of the environment, glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled continuously without any loss in the resulting quality. It’s one of the most environmentally sound materials in packaging design.”
“Unlike virgin plastic (which can be recycled once more) or post-consumer plastic (which cannot be recycled again), glass can be recycled endlessly without limitation,” says Jina Kim, founder of sustainable skin-care brand Circumference. “Unlike plastic, recycled glass does not lose the structural integrity of the material.” For her own line, Kim focuses on using glass wherever possible and only plastics that are commonly recyclable in the US, such as PET and HDPE.
Refillable products are another way brands are making an effort to be more sustainable and to prolong the life of product packaging. While it varies from brand to brand and product to product, some will allow you to send back empties to be refilled or allow you to refill them in-store, while others create durable cases that hold product refills and replacements.
Brazilian beauty brand Natura has been doing this since the ’80s, allowing refills for its Chronos skin-care and Ekos bath, body, and hair-care collections. Kjaer Weis does this with its luxe metal cases which are able to be refilled with new makeup inserts when finished, as does Surratt with its brow pencils and other refillable cosmetics. Personal care brand Myro sells deodorant refills to be popped into its plastic containers, reducing its plastic use by 50 percent.
Another way brands are making efforts to be more sustainable—and clean up the planet—is making their packaging from post-consumer recycled materials. A leader in this is hair-care brand KEVIN.MURPHY, who, back in 2018, decided that all bottles would be manufactured with 100 percent Ocean Waste Plastic (OWP) “because I didn’t want to be a part of the problem anymore.” Says Murphy, “The beauty industry contributes to the eight-million-plus tons of waste dumped into the world’s oceans each year, and by switching to ocean waste to package our products, were able to lift 360 tons of waste from the ocean each year—which is like removing 14 million plastic bottles each year, or four to five plastic bags per bottle we create.”
Not all PCR materials are able to be recycled again, which is what makes Murphy’s products so unique. “The material can be recycled again and again—and it can be recycled with virgin plastics.”
Finally, brands that have their own recycling or take-back programs—ensuring that you can properly recycle packaging and take the guesswork out of tossing it in the bin—are also worth your support. In general, if a brand is working with TerraCycle, then they’re worth backing. You can check out the full list of brands that have partnered with TerraCycle, and the exact details of their programs, here.
“We don’t need more items being recycled … We know the system is overburdened, requires tons of energy and resources, and largely is an ineffective lullaby made to make us feel better about our consumption habits.”
While it’s crucial that we as consumers collectively begin to be more mindful about properly recycling our empties and buying from brands that are putting in the work to be more environmentally friendly, Piper feels that it’s equally as important to focus on personal reuse and refusal. “We don’t need more items being recycled,” she says. “We know the system is overburdened, requires tons of energy and resources, and largely is an ineffective lullaby made to make us feel better about our consumption habits.”
In the end, though, the real impactful change must spark from within the industry itself. Sure, there are plenty of eco-conscious brands out there—many more than the ones outlined above—but there are still many that aren’t. If you love and swear by a specific brand that isn’t implementing any sustainability efforts into how it packages its products, make your voice heard. Chances are you don’t want to cut that product out of your routine, so instead, demand change. Slide into their DMs, email them, call them—let them know you’re demanding for them to do better, because they have to do better. The stakes are too high for them to ignore our calls for change much longer.
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