Lately I’ve been having a real dilemma every time I finish a beauty product in the bathroom: Do I throw it in the trash or should I take it to the kitchen to recycle? A year ago, this is a question I never would have asked myself, but lately I’ve been thinking more and more about how much waste I’m creating that ends up in landfills or floating in the ocean. Honestly, the subliminal and overt messaging about sustainability is getting to me (in a good way).
I’ve got it on lock in the kitchen, from cardboard egg cartons to reusable FreshDirect bags. When I moved into a new apartment, I made it a point to have two bins sitting right beside my trash can—one for paper and one for plastic—to make it easy to recycle. But once I step into my bathroom, it’s like I forget that recycling is even a thing.
“The most important thing to remember when you’re in the bathroom is that those packages should be recycled too,” Betsy Dorn, director at RSE USA, a recycling and waste consulting company, reminds me. “There’s a huge drop-off in the amount of recycling that occurs when you move away from the kitchen.” According to a survey done by Unilever (which owns brands like Dove, Simple Skincare, and Nexxus), over half of Americans know that personal care products are recyclable but only 34 percent take the extra step to put them in the bin—which, by the way, probably involves taking extra steps (plural, literal) to the kitchen, where the bin actually is. Recycling is complicated in general, and it gets even trickier when you’re dealing with packaging that veers from the standard plastic bottle or aluminum can you’re used to.
It’s not just consumers who have yet to get on the cosmetics-recycling bandwagon. The beauty industry as a whole is just now starting to think about sustainable packaging in a meaningful way. It used to be that the only products wrapped in post-consumer recycled plastic were at Whole Foods. Now, you can go to any beauty store and find brands like Love Beauty Planet, Seed Phytonutrients, and Aveda that care about their carbon footprint and are making a concerted effort to use recycled and recyclable materials. It’s not easy, says Josh Wadinski, CEO and founder of luxury beauty brand Plantioxidants, which has sustainable packaging made from 100 percent recycled materials and that can be recycled again (that’s called closed loop).
Traditionally, companies buy so-called “virgin” (unused) glass or nonrecycled plastic to create their bottles and jars. It’s harder and more expensive to use recycled materials, especially since the makeup of the package can affect the efficacy and shelf life of the product inside it. “There is no standard” for it, says Wedinski. “It takes a company with values to say, ‘We’re going to invest our time in making a positive impact.’”
Until we can take it for granted that all product packaging is as sustainable as possible and can be recycled easily, we’ll have to do the legwork to put our eco-mindedness to work in the powder room. Here are 10 important pieces of information to help you recycle your beauty products.
1. First, find out what can and can’t be recycled in your area.
Every city has its own rules when it comes to what is recyclable. Check your local government website to see the restrictions for your community. “Different communities accept different materials. It has to do with the materials recovery system that serves the community and the agreement that center has with that recycling collection program,” says Dorn. “It also has to do with the market that community sells those materials to and what those markets are able to accept.”
Generally, once your recyclables get picked up from the curb, they're sorted and sold to companies that do the actual recycling. A lot of America's plastics have historically gone to China, which has handled the recycling of about 45 percent of the world’s plastic since 1992, according to NPR. But since China stopped importing plastic from other countries in January, recycling in America is facing greater challenges.
2. Examine the labels on your products to see what’s recyclable.
There are a few context clues on the package that tell you if it’s recyclable or not. The paper and cardboard boxes that products come in are pretty much a sure bet, but look for the classic triangle with arrows symbol (which is called a Mobius loop) to be 100 percent sure.
But not every package with a Mobius loop is necessarily recyclable where you live. On plastic bottles, you’ll see a similar symbol that has a number inside: These numbers (one through seven) identify what type of plastic the package is made of. “If you look on the bottom of the container, the most recyclable plastics have a number one or two,” says Dorn. A number three denotes PVC, which Dorn describes as a particularly a problematic material to recycle. It belongs in the trash. As far as numbers four through seven, it depends on your local community rules. While some are accepted in curbside programs, others might have to be taken to a local recycling pickup point (like a grocery store).
Another symbol you might see is a dot that sort of looks like a yin-yang with arrows. That is an indication that the product is made of recycled materials. There also might be a Mobius loop with a circle around it, which also indicates that it’s made from some recycled materials. However, just because it’s made from recycled material doesn’t mean it can necessarily be recycled again, says Dorn. That’s why it’s important to know your numbers.
3. Often, small items can’t be recycled.
“A small-format container doesn’t flow well through curbside recycling program,” says Dorn. “Anything small like a lipstick case or under a 6-ounce package size will get screened out or caught in the disposal stream for that facility.” Most of the facilities that sort recycling are automated with optical and physical sorter machines. Little containers like lipstick tubes can get missed by sorting machines and thrown into the trash—and back into a landfill.
4. The color of the container matters.
“With respect to glass, clear, brown, and green are preferred for recycling programs,” says Dorn. “The odd-colored glass is more problematic to recycle, but it depends on what they are doing with that glass.” If it’s going to be crushed up for use in sandblasting machines (which use the glass to strip away rust on metal or to creative decorative finishes on glass), it doesn’t matter. But if it’s going to be sold back to a bottle manufacturer then only those three common colors are going to be in demand. Black plastic—think men’s body wash—is another tough material for material recovery facilities to handle because the optical sorters don’t recognize that color.
5. Pouches and squeezable tubes usually can’t be recycled.
Anything that is multilayer or multimaterial in format is challenging to recycle. That just means that there is a coating or film in the inside the package or the object is made up of different types of plastic. Certain flexible pouches (like resealable pouches with face masks) and toothpaste tubes are considered multilayer and should be thrown in the trash unless the package explicitly states that you can recycle it.
6. Pumps and droppers are also problematic.
Another recycling red flag is the pumps and droppers on top of bottles, which are often multimaterial. It’s good practice to remove the pumps from any bottle before recycling because they often have metal springs inside that you can’t see. Caps and screwtops, however, are usually fine—even if they aren’t the same material as the bottle or jar itself. (Just remember to put them back on before binning: A solo cap is too small to go through the sorting system and will end up in the trash.)
7. Don’t forget about the cans of dry shampoo and hairspray.
Most dry shampoo and hairspray cans are made of steel and aluminum, which are both recyclable. Of course, check with your local rules first to see if aerosol is accepted.
8. Yes, you do have to rinse out the bottles first.
I would be lying if I said that having to wash out a container before putting it in recycling wasn’t a significant deterrent. But it actually matters. 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 (more on that later). You should also try to remove any labels on the bottle. “Labels can be a big deal in terms of what type of adhesive is used or whether a label is full wrap,” says Dorn. “If you can easily take the label off, do, but it’s not always an issue.”
9. Consider returning it to the brand.
As the beauty industry seeks to become more sustainable, many brands are starting internal recycling programs that offer rewards and discounts. For example, for every 10 full-sized Kiehl’s products you bring back, you get a free sample. MAC also accepts those lipstick tubes that are too small for the curbside program. Return six packages and get one lipstick free as a part of the Back to MAC program. Remember that thing about toothpaste tubes being a no-go? Well, both Colgate and Tom’s of Maine have recycling programs through TerraCyle, a company that specializes in hard-to-recycle waste. Garnier has also set up a program that allows you to return just about any packaging in your bathroom through TerraCycle. All you have to do is mail in your empties.
Plantioxidants also has a mail-back program, which Wadinski hopes will help fuel innovation to make recycling cosmetics containers easier in the long run. “Right now, there is no 100 percent post-consumer recycled pump,” he says. “What I’m hoping to do is recycle bottles into pumps for the future. It’s not difficult to melt plastic, use 3-D printing, and make recyclable pumps, but it’s going to take time on our end and investment to get the equipment ready.”
10. When in doubt, throw it in the trash.
“Wishful recyclers say, ‘When in doubt, put it in your container and hope for the best,’” says Dorn. But if something that is not accepted ends up at the facility, it can clog up the entire system.
This human error is causing big problems in the recycling industry. Because consumers don’t know exactly what to do with some products (a problem I definitely identify with), sometimes things get mixed in that shouldn’t be there. Municipal recycling facilities often sell the materials they collect to other countries (like China) that do the actual recycling, turning your old bottle into post-consumer raw materials for manufacturers to make new stuff out of. When the facility’s bales of plastic are contaminated with non-recyclable materials or dirty bottles (see #8), it’s harder to sell and has less value. Or, the people at the plant have to physically remove these contaminants and the facility has to pay to get that material disposed of. “You’ve gone through the trouble of putting it in the recycling bin, but it ends up in the waste stream anyway,” says Dorn. “So, it’s best not to put it in there.”