The beauty industry creates a lot of packaging waste and as you may well imagine, it certainly isn’t environmentally friendly. The waste of packaging has far-reaching, deleterious effects not only on the environment but on our lives too. Today, we’re going to answer some common questions about packaging, plastic and what we can do to mitigate the problems they can cause.
How harmful is packaging waste to the environment?
By far, the biggest issue affecting the environment is the sheer volume of plastic that just doesn’t get recycled. Whether this waste plastic is placed in a dump, landfill, incinerated or just plain carelessly chucked into the ocean, it will cause problems.
The immediate issues affect the wildlife in and around the places the waste is dumped and it’s particularly marine animals that suffer the most. Recent research has shown that almost half the world’s population of sea turtles have ingested plastic at some point, and many starve to death after doing so. This is because the plastic fills their stomachs and doesn’t break down, causing them to feel full and consequently not eat enough food to survive. Then there are the one million seabirds a year who suffer a similar fate, or the fact that coral that comes into contact with plastic has an 89% chance of becoming diseased - as opposed to a 4% chance if it is unmolested by the plastic scourge.
The wider-reaching issue of plastic is when it begins to degrade. At the point of degradation, plastic starts shedding tiny particles known as microplastics and they can end up just about anywhere - in the air, ground, ocean but most strikingly, in the food we eat. I’m not just talking about fish or seafood either.
A recent study carried out at the University of Catania found that there are particles of plastic in our fruit and vegetables. Every time you bite into say, an apple, or have a salad, you could be consuming microplastics. A scary thought. This was well-highlighted in February in the US, as Senator Tom Udall gave a speech about new legislation designed to tackle the problem of waste plastic. He held up a credit card. Why? Because it was a visual representation of how much plastic the average American consumes per WEEK - which is believed to be around 5 grammes. Over the course of a year, research has shown that this amounts to more than 74,000 microplastic particles.
While it may be too soon to ascertain how damaging the consumption of microplastics is to our health, as Pete Myers, the head Scientist of Environmental Health Services, a non-profit organisation, said “There cannot be no effect”.
What are the regulations for packaging in the UK?
Packing regulations for the beauty industry changed post-Brexit and are more or less defined by the Waste Management Plan for England, which was outlined in 2021. The general idea is that plastic packaging must contain at least 30% recycled plastic regardless of whether it’s produced in the UK or imported, or it’ll be subject to increased taxes.
The UK government has pledged to eliminate what they term ‘avoidable waste of all kinds’ by the year 2050, but in the more immediate future are ‘working towards’ all the plastic packaging produced being either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Obviously, at this stage, it’s all talk. Britain has a serious problem with plastic waste as it ranks 2nd in the world in terms of plastic waste produced per person - this translates to 99 kilogrammes for each Briton, annually. If that wasn’t bad enough, Britain currently exports around two-thirds of that plastic waste overseas, where processing is a lot less regulated and a lot less recycling happens.
Why is it important to reduce packaging waste?
For the sake of human beings and every living thing on the planet, we have to make a concerted effort to reduce ALL waste, including packaging waste from the beauty industry and others.
There are no perfect options when it comes to packaging. There’s a lot of talk about using paper bags instead of plastic, but it’s not as simple as a straight-swap and everything works out fine. For example, paper is a lot more resource-intensive to produce than plastic - did you know that it takes four times the energy to make one paper bag as opposed to a plastic one? And how about the volume in terms of logistics?
A paper bag on its own obviously feels as light as anything, but when we’re talking on an industrial scale, it takes SEVEN times the number of lorries to transport the equivalent number of paper bags as opposed to plastic ones. If you really want to go down a rabbit hole in terms of environmental issues, you can start considering how much energy and how many resources it took to manufacture, maintain and run those six additional lorries.
The point is that it’s a very complex issue. There are no soothe-all salves that we can apply to our wounded planet that don’t require us to show some real commitment and make compromises when it comes to how we consume.
How much waste does the beauty industry produce?
Frankly speaking, a heck of a lot. The vast majority of packaging used in the beauty industry comes in some form of plastic and the waste figures make for grim reading. It’s estimated that every year, there are over 120 billion, yes, billion, units of plastic packaging produced globally, and only a small fraction - somewhere just under 15% - actually makes it to a recycling centre.
Plastic waste is an absolute scourge. Of all the plastic ever produced, less than 10% has been recycled, approximately 12% has been incinerated (which is hardly great for the environment either) and the rest of it, i.e. the best part of 80%, either goes into a landfill, a dump or even worse, carelessly tossed into the ocean.
So why isn’t more plastic recycled? Well, the problem is that in a lot of cases it either flat-out can’t be or can’t be done easily, efficiently or in a cost-effective manner. All plastic is not created equal, hence the 1 to 7 numbering system you see on the packaging itself. Generally speaking, the lower the number, the more likely the plastic can be recycled - 1 represents the plastic found on single-use drinking water bottles, whereas 7 is a catch-all for just about anything up to and including fibreglass, which is nigh-on impossible to recycle.
Another massive factor in whether plastic can be recycled or not is colour. The most recyclable plastic, and also the most expensive to produce, is entirely transparent. After that, it’s white plastic, and after that comes just about every other colour, with the least recycled being the colour black. The reason for this can be illustrated by thinking back to mixing colours when you were a kid - how often would you be experimenting with paint and it would just turn brown? The exact same principles apply to plastic when it’s melted down and many companies don’t want to be limited to just one colour.
The next issue is degradation. A piece of plastic can only be recycled two or three times before it loses its structural integrity and is no longer viable to use. To combat this and increase the longevity or quality of the plastic packaging, it is often mixed in with virgin plastic (first use), which certainly cheapens the idea of recycling and lessens its environmental effect.
What can we do to reduce excess packaging?
As individuals and consumers, we need to make sure that we hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we make. The best thing to do, really, is to buy less, reuse items as much as possible, recycle as much as we can and when we do buy products, make sure that they are either recyclable or made from recycled products.
On a company level, our job is to minimise our carbon footprint as much as we can. We talk a lot about sustainability here at Nereus London, and we genuinely try our best to make decisions that will have the least amount of impact on the planet as we realistically can. At every step of the journey, from the packaging we use to when we send our products to your door, we’re trying our best to do things in a sustainable, conscious way.
One of the most important factors for us is making sure that we’re plastic-free at every stage of the company, not just when it comes to the bottles and packaging we use. As we’ve already discussed, plastic has a hugely negative environmental effect and we don’t want any part of it. There’s enough plastic out there already, and thankfully there are companies, like our partner Plastic Bank, doing something about it.
However, in order to follow through on our convictions, when it came to deciding on the material for our bottles, we decided to go with aluminium. Aluminium is infinitely recyclable for one thing, and there are cans today that contain well over 70% recycled material - far higher than you see from glass or plastic equivalents. Aluminium is also a lot lighter and more durable than glass, making it easier to transport and giving it a smaller carbon footprint in that respect.
As a company, we’re always looking to learn about new and better ways to design and manufacture the products we make - we’d love to hear any suggestions you may have, so don’t hesitate to contact us with your thoughts!
Here you can find more information if you’d like to find out more about our packaging and approach to beauty care.