On my mission to reducing my plastic footprint I have been using solid shampoo and conditioner bars for over a year now and have avoided approx. 40 plastic bottles since (I was a heavy user!). I have more recently switched shower gels for quality palm oil free soaps or my own home made body scrubs. However avoiding plastic entirely is not so easy since I still struggle to get plastic free versions of some my favourite products.
I decided to do a comparative study on cosmetic packaging. To narrow it down, and so as not to be biased towards my favourite products, I examined seven brands found in the ‘natural cosmetics’ aisle at a leading European department store. They included Weleda, Lavera, Burt’s Bees, Rituals, Dresdner Essenz, Logona and L’Occitane. As consumers, we are often enticed by attractive packaging but also by buzz words like ‘Organic’, ‘ECO’ and ‘Natural’. Whilst some of these brands promote organic and wholesome ingredients in their products, what about the materials used in the disposable packaging and what are they made of?
I expected to find these products as wholesome on the outside as they claim to be on the inside but the results were not all as positive as I had hoped. All of the plastic packages featured the recycle symbol, but all this means is that the packaging itself can be recycled, leaving sole responsibility on the consumer. Most of the brands (except Lavera, Rituals and L’OCCITANE) had identified the plastic grade number in order for it to be recycled correctly. Most of the containers used PET or PP plastics which are widely recyclable but only one brand was using a sustainable version of grade 7 (miscellaneous plastics).
If a product does need to be packaged in plastic the best solution seems to be Bioplastics (compostable) or PCR (post consumer recycling). These are usually categorised into type 7 miscellaneous plastic. These types of plastics at least escape the single use category and are therefore less hazardous if, in turn, they are recycled responsibly.
After studying the packaging in store and on their websites, I contacted each of the brands explaining my findings and questioned; could they also use PCR plastics?
Burt’s Bees ranked top place after I concluded my research. Not only are they using PCR plastic blends in their containers but the caps are made from 100% PCR plastic. In general they have striped back the packaging 50%, are using paper foam over polystyrene and they are striving to make the packaging as recyclable as possible. They even have a mail back program where you can send back your lip balm tubes for free! All they ask is you collect a few empties before sending them and use a recyclable envelop!
That is good company Bee-haviour if you ask me!
Dresdner Essenz were very informative and quick to respond. They advised me that many factors have to be considered in order to protect the liquid product from light, water vapour inlet, loss of aroma and at this time PE/EVOH was required to preserve the ingredients of their products. They did however consider my suggestions and will look further into alternative sustainable packaging with equally positive product protection.
L’OCCITANE responded advising me that their packaging contains, on average, 20.6% eco-friendly materials (recycled or renewable) and they mainly use Polyethylene terephthalate (PE , PETg), Polyethylene (PE) (Grade 1) and Polypropylene (PP – Grade 5). Following the launch of bottles made from plant-based polyethylene for the L’OCCITANE Shea Butter and Almond ranges, the Group has widened its use of renewable materials, with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) made from 30% sugar cane. They also offer refill options with the popular SHEA BUTTER LIQUID SOAP large pump bottle. The refill packs are made of 90% less plastic than the large long life pump and 1€ cheaper! I came to learn that they are working on ways to recycle their products in partnership with an innovative company specialized in processing difficult-to-recycle materials, called Terracycle. In 2014, a programme to recycle the L’OCCITANE empty containers was launched in France. The aim of this programme is to encourage customers to recycle and has collected and recycled almost 15,000 containers since. Great innovative but we need to be able to identify the plastic on the bottle if we are to attempt to recycle it!
Like Dresdner Essenz, Weleda responded stating that ‘truly natural cosmetics which are not made with synthetic preservatives are far more demanding on a packaging material’s ability to protect the product within, since natural ingredients are vulnerable to degradation and spoiling within a short period of time.’ Their internal sustainable solutions team were working on a bio-based plastic packaging evaluation tool with AÖL but at this time those solutions have not meet those minimum protective requirements. They have advised me that a portion of their plastic packaging is made up of recycled plastic materials, that they plan to discontinue the use of aluminium in packaging and the recycled portion of the glass used is expected to reach 88% this year (the highest percentage that is technically possible).
Surely if one brand can successfully offer alternative sustainable packaging or refill solutions, why can’t their competitors? It seems the shelf life of natural ingredients based products are best preserved when the product is in solid form like soap bars or balsams, which in turn do not require wasteful packaging. However we cannot deny that cosmetic companies are offering their products to us in a variety of single use disposable plastics due to consumers being stimulated by the decorative and attractive packaging. We have a responsibility as consumers to not be fooled by clever marketing and expensive products. Many of these simple products are made with ingredients you might find in your cupboard! You can find some home made scrub recipes in the DIY section.
Unfortunately the remaining four brands Lavera, Rituals and Logona choose not to respond to my several attempts to communicate. During my research into these ‘natural cosmetics’ brands I did discover some very interesting facts regarding the seemingly wholesome ingredients of some of the products, but this grey area topic requires extensive research and is a whole other article in itself!