Recycling Skincare: How to Be Responsible with Our Beauty Routines
Make sure you’re recycling your skincare and makeup products the right way. Because our journey to good skin doesn’t have to come at the Earth’s expense.
This is the life of skincare products as the average person thinks about it: manufacture —> sale & purchase —> use (maybe a few cute flat lay photos before and during) —> discardment. A lot of us simply toss our empties in with the egg cartons and empty soup cans, but what if I told you this was the wrong way to go about recycling your skincare?
I hate to be the bearer of some less-than-great news, but recycling plants actually aren’t equipped to handle 100% of the empty containers you send their way. This inability is due to a variety of factors, such as the materials they are made of or a specific municipal plant’s standards for recycling.
Even worse, a 2015 study by Unilever, the parent company of skincare and beauty brands like Dermalogica and Hourglass, found that most people neglect to recycle items outside of the kitchen. This neglect is partly due to confusion about which cosmetic products are recyclable, and partly to the position of the recycling bin in the house. Basically, we’re all super lazy about making the short trip from the bathroom to the kitchen/garage/cloakroom. Also, bathrooms typically have just one waste receptacle, with no dedicated bin for non-biodegradable trash. Personally, I combat that by keeping a bag or box in my bedroom and tossing my empties in there until I have enough to recycle.
But don’t write recycling your skincare off yet. Let’s walk through some common obstacles that make used skincare containers hard to recycle for your local facility, and how you can play a part in overcoming them.
1. Rinse out your empty containers before tossing them in the bin
You wouldn’t toss an empty jar of spaghetti sauce without rinsing it out would you? Do the same with that empty serum bottle or sleeping mask tub. For products that come in tubes, cut them open and give them a rinse. As a bonus, you gain access to every last drop of eye or sun cream, and thus, greater bang for your buck. Dirty containers lower the recyclable value and increase the risk that it will be tossed into the trash due to the unknown nature of the contents or the potential for the residue to contaminate the rest of the batch.
2. Know what kind of container qualifies for recycling
If you look at the plastic and glass containers your products come in, you’ll see a symbol that looks like one of these:
These symbols were created by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in 1988, to help recycling facilities figure out how to sort different types of plastic. Plastics like PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) are readily recyclable and have been greenlit for placement in your weekly curbside pickup. The former is used for things like plastic bottles and food containers, and is the easiest to recycle into products like furniture and other containers. The latter is used for things like milk jugs and shampoo bottles, with a wide range of applications in its original and recycled form.
Other plastics like polystyrene and propylene vary from location to location, but I don’t think you’ll have to worry about those since pretty much all the skincare containers I’ve examined seem to be made from PETE. But it’s not a bad idea to be more conscientious about all the plastic you encounter, whether it’s an essence bottle or a styrofoam takeout container.
And of course there are other components of product packaging, like paper boxes or glass. Luckily those are straightforward and can go in the bin after any necessary rinsing.
3. Send them back from whence they came
That’s a fancy way of saying “send them back to the manufacturer.” M.A.C, for instance, removes the burden of recycling from the consumers’ shoulders by offering a free tube of lipstick in exchange for six empty makeup receptacles.
Unfortunately, not a lot of brands have taken a leaf out of M.A.C’s book, but there are still options for those who care about making sure their sustainable lifestyle extends to the afterlife of their beauty products. One of such options is LOOP, a waste-free e-commerce experience that also makes it easy for everyone to play their part. LOOP offers grocery, household, and personal care items in reusable jars and bottles, which can be easily returned for refills once empty, reducing the number of product containers in circulation. Rest assured, each vessel is cleaned and sanitized before being refilled, so no worries about the sterility. I hope to see more brands partnering with LOOP in the future, or at least creating a similar model.
Another great recycling initiative is TerraCycle. That’s the company responsible for the LOOP initiative, and it also acts as a gateway to other free recycling programs, including the Zero Waste System, which takes the guesswork out of recycling by taking care of the sorting process for you. Thanks to TerraCycle, you can find out how to turn in your spent products from Deciem, Josie Maran, Burt’s Bees, and more.
You can also send in pretty much any kind of waste. It’s as simple as taking a quiz to pick which kind of waste you would like to send in, which is then sorted and processed by TerraCycle upon receipt. The Zero Waste Boxes aren’t free unfortunately, and can be a little expensive depending on the kind of refuse that requires disposal.
Innisfree is one K-beauty brand that partners with TerraCycle as well. They also have a recycling program, though it’s not one that’s accessible to every consumer since it’s only in-store. Check for your nearest Innisfree store here.
4. Break it down
In addition to scrutinizing your containers to make sure they’re appropriate for salvage programs, it’s also important to know which parts of them are recyclable. Pump bottles for instance, contain springs which help to pull product up through the plastic tube and out of the nozzle. The process for metal recycling is important, so it’s important that you remove the springs if you can, before putting the pump in the bin. The same protocol goes for multi-material containers, e.g. glass bottles with a metal cap or droppers that consist of glass, rubber, and plastic.
When in doubt, turn it into a program like TerraCycle, send it back to the brand if that’s an option, or simply throw it in the trash. I know, I know. That’s counterproductive to the whole concept of responsible recycling, but the thing is, if small non-recyclable objects end up in a facility’s system, they get flagged and complicate or contaminate the process, ending up in the trash anyway.
Recycling your skincare empties might seem like an unnecessary step to you, but in this day and age where pollution is rapidly degrading our planet thanks to irresponsible plastic use, it’s important that we all do the little bit we can to chip in. It’s better for each person to take the initiative by patronizing more sustainable brands, being conscious about single-use plastic usage, and making sure empty containers end up in the right place, rather than for each of us to sit with our hands folded, relying on the next person to do what we won’t.
Are you strict about recycling your skincare? How do you do it? Share your process! You could teach us all a thing or two.