As beautiful as the beauty industry can be, unfortunately, it leaves behind a massive plastic footprint. The industry’s mess, often masked by inspiring imagery and hushed realities, is a massive carbon and pollution footprint sourced from packaging, laminations, and ingredients containing harmful microplastics. Just the packaging alone adds up to a global impact of 120 billion units of plastic packaging waste––every single year.
In the U.S., almost 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic are made annually just for beauty and personal care products. Over 550 million plastic bottles are sold in the U.S. each year for just shampoo alone. 90% of all plastics do not get recycled, thanks to the common use of many non-recyclable materials in beauty (for example, multi-layer tubes and components combining different types of materials, such as pumps), a lack of sophistication in the recycling infrastructure, and insufficient consumer education and access to advanced recycling systems. Out of the 2.5 million plastic bottles that Americans throw away every hour across industries, more than 2.25 million are not being recycled. Instead, they end up in landfills or, even worse, polluting our environment. Even the beautiful cardboard outer packaging or glossy, shiny packaging you often see beauty products flaunting can just be a cover-up for a hidden plastic problem in the form of foil laminations and gloss coatings that contain plastics and hinder recyclability of the cardboard underneath.
So, why is there so much plastic in the beauty industry? The main reason is that a big portion of liquid beauty formulations consists of water. In fact, water makes up 80 to 90% of shampoo and conditioner formulas and up to 60 to 70% of many cream formulas. All of that water needs to be packaged with a water-proof barrier protection––and that’s where plastic comes in. Selling water is extremely profitable and allows for “over-sizing,” which helps products stand out on our overloaded retail shelves. Consumers have been educated for decades that “bigger is always better”––something that we obviously don’t agree with. In addition to their waste footprint, liquid beauty products with such high water content waste valuable water resources and increase a product’s volume and weight footprint in shipping, which causes unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.
But there’s more to beauty’s plastic problem than what meets the eye. Plastic can also be found lurking in beauty’s ingredient lists. Using the Plastic Soup Foundation’s definition of microplastics as polymers that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and/or toxic and that are not readily biodegradable in all environmental departments, the use of microplastics in beauty formulations is rather common. Examples of such microplastics are silicones like dimethicone and cyclomethicone that you will find in the INCI lists of many hair and skincare products and that have been found to be poorly biodegradable and expected to persist in the environment and to be toxic to aquatic organisms.
Why is plastic such an environmental concern? To understand why, you have to look at both the beginning of life and the end of life of a plastic product. In production, i.e. at the beginning of its lifecycle, plastic depletes non-renewable natural resources in the form of crude oil or natural gas which it is made of. Its production uses immense amounts of energy, in fact, 4 million joules of energy is used to produce just one 1L PET bottle, which is said to be enough to power a house for 4 days. In addition, greenhouse gases are released during plastic production, with 3 tons of CO2 created for every ton of plastic produced. Once tossed, less than 10% of plastic is currently being recycled. Plastic does not biodegrade. Instead, it takes centuries to mechanically degrade, harming life in the process. Over time, plastic degrades into very small, non-biodegradable mini polymers (microplastics). Those microplastics are very damaging to the environment, where they take forever to degrade and harm our oceans and marine life in the process. In addition, they are harmful to human health. We inhale plastics (e.g., through household dust), we eat plastics (microplastics in the oceans are ingested by marine animals and passed along the food chain, harming both marine life and human health), we drink plastics (microplastic contamination of drinking water has been shown in studies), and microplastics are connected to fertility problems (due to endocrine disruptors found in plastics). Plastic debris is even linked to the risk of infectious disease, as pieces of plastic that hold water are potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes and floating plastic can be a source for the spread of pathogens. So yes, plastic’s prevalence is a real and urgent concern.
Obviously, the beauty industry is just one of many contributors to the global plastic problem – but one where solutions already exist to stop new plastic at its source. Following the belief that “no one can do everything but everyone can do something”, at superzero we developed water-less or water-free hair and body care products that use zero plastic packaging (also no hidden ones) and are certified as microplastics-free by The Plastic Soup Foundation – all while delivering excellent performance. Switching to our bars and other zero plastic products is an easy way to lower your plastic footprint in beauty and beyond. When it comes to packaging, make sure that any cardboard includes recycled content and is free of shiny, glossy laminations. As for ingredients, stay clear of products that contain silicones or other microplastics. To help you ensure that the products you buy don’t include any microplastics, you can use the Plastic Soup Foundation’s Beat The Microbead app
For too long, being environmentally conscious in your product choice meant that you had to compromise your product’s performance or your beauty results. Gladly, this time is over. At superzero, we’re proud to ensure that each and every product we develop with the power of nature and clean science lives up to the highest standards of both performance and sustainability. Because we know that only then will we be able to fulfill our mission to minimize beauty’s plastic footprint and to prove that true beauty does no harm. I hope you’ll join us for the journey.