How We’re Improving Our Packaging to Become More Sustainable
Beauty product packaging has an outsized burdensome impact on the environment. Here’s why–and what we’re doing to make our packaging more sustainable.
The environmental impact of beauty packaging
Beauty product packaging may not take up a lot of space in your medicine cabinet, but according to the University of Connecticut’s Office of Sustainability, “The bottles, tubes, and containers used annually by the cosmetic industry adds up to 120 billion units of plastics packaging.” In the U.S. alone, only 8% of plastic waste is recycled successfully. This, according to the University of Connecticut, means that 70% of those 120 billion units ends up in landfills.
But while that may lead us to conclude that simply avoiding plastics or recycling packaging more efficiently will instantly make beauty products more sustainable, the truth is a bit more complicated. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while glass is recycled at a higher rate than plastic, it’s hardly a packaging panacea. Combining data from the Glass Packaging Institute with that of state environmental agencies, the EPA found that “the amount of recycled glass containers was 3.1 million tons in 2018, for a recycling rate of 31.3%.”
Rates for recycled aluminum packaging were similar, according to the EPA. In 2018, “the total recycling rate of aluminum containers and packaging, which includes beverage containers, food containers, foil and other aluminum packaging, was 34.9%.” The most common items were beer and soft drink cans, accounting for just over half of all aluminum recycled.
Recyclability does not equal sustainability
In a perfect world, all types of beauty product packaging would be easily and universally recycled and wouldn’t end up in landfills at all. In reality, however, we know that recycling is only part of a sustainability solution–one that doesn’t address the environmental impact that went into creating the packaging in the first place, and that relies heavily on the consumer to implement.
Relying solely on recycling as a sustainability plan also does not take into account the differences in recycling infrastructure or which types of packaging are accepted on local, municipal levels. The consumer may have every intention of recycling their lipstick tube, for instance, but because it is so small, it is deemed not recyclable in the U.S. Ditto for packaging in various colors, shapes, sizes, and materials: All of these factors impact how packaging can be–and is–recycled locally.
What this teaches us is that recycling is a tool in helping to be more sustainable–not a one-stop solution. Recycling can, and does, make a difference in what ends up in our landfills. In fact, the U.S. EPA estimates that nearly 70 million tons of waste is properly recycled annually. That’s nearly 70 million tons that avoids ending up in the landfill! But to truly become more sustainable in how we package beauty products, we need to take a multi-pronged approach.
Examining the “life cycle” of packaging materials
We are committed to improving Babo Botanicals’ environmental impact, and that includes examining the packaging we use. While it may seem that simply relying on materials other than plastic will solve the sustainability issue in our beauty product packaging, it’s important to look at the overall impact all packaging material has on the environment, at every stage of its “life.”
Before we decided on new packaging for our haircare line, for instance, we conducted a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to help us determine what the most environmentally-friendly packaging would be. LCA uses multiple data points to examine the carbon emissions and waste that are generated throughout a packaging material’s life cycle.
5 considerations of a Life Cycle Analysis
Raw material extraction
Raw materials need to be extracted from the earth and processed before they become plastic, glass, and aluminum packaging. This is often the phase that has the largest negative impact on the environment, as it is energy intensive and emits the most carbon emissions. But it’s not just materials that make plastic that are the most concerning. Would it surprise you to learn, for example, that this phase to create aluminum packaging causes over 90% of the package's carbon emissions?
Once the raw materials are extracted from the earth, they are manufactured into the packaging we see on our shelves. This process leads to manufacturing waste that is created from producing packaging.
During the distribution phase, packaging is transported to various locations that include retail outlets, distribution centers, and manufacturing plants. This transportation requires packaging of its own: Consider all the packing materials that are required to ensure glass packaging won’t shatter before it can be filled with beauty product formulas, for instance. And, because glass is heavier than other packaging options, it requires more fuel to transport it, resulting in higher carbon emissions.
Consumer usage is an integral part of determining the environmental impact of a beauty product. Water is a prominent component here: how much water a consumer will use with a product, whether or not they’ll run the faucet until the water is hot, and how much water is required to fully remove the beauty product from skin or hair are all factors that are taken into consideration.
Lastly, it’s important to consider the end use of packaging. We already know that recycling packaging can be challenging due to municipal rules around what can be recycled. Even if a consumer sorts their recycling correctly, packaging may not actually be recycled at the plant.
Our sustainability goals for the future
How our LCA results informed our new hair carton packaging
One of our biggest goals at Babo Botanicals is to significantly reduce the use of virgin plastic packaging used to hold our formulas. In the last two years alone, we’ve been steadily phasing out virgin plastic and replacing it with post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic.
Conducting the LCA for our haircare product packaging allowed us to take things in a new, exciting, and even more environmentally-friendly direction: our NEW haircare cartons, which use 80% less plastic compared to traditional bottles of the same volume.
In fact, according to the data revealed in the LCA, when we compared our new haircare cartons to virgin plastic, recycled plastic, recycled aluminum, and glass packaging options, our new haircare cartons obtained 7 of 8 of the best scores when it comes to fossil fuel use, global warming potential, water consumption, mineral resource use, global warming potential with CO2 uptake, freshwater ecotoxicity, and human impact.
Our sustainability goals for the future
When it comes to sustainability in beauty product packaging, we’ve learned that a single perfect option does not exist; each option has benefits and drawbacks. But as we continue to evolve as a brand, we remain steadfast in our commitment to aligning our choices with our brand initiatives. We hope you’ll join us as we continue to learn, grow, and become even more sustainable!