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Unseen 2019: The ugly side of beauty waste

  • While discussions about the environmental cost of fashion peaked this year, there’s little information on how the beauty industry pollutes
  • Some of the worst environmental offenders like microbeads and triclosan are dregs of the beauty and cosmetics universe

From the packaging to ingredients, personal care products exert a toll on the environment
From the packaging to ingredients, personal care products exert a toll on the environment (Photo: AFP)

It’s always Christmas in the beauty business. Worth over $500 billion (around 35.5 trillion), the industry is estimated to grow to $820 billion by 2023. According to the Euromonitor International study, India ranked eighth globally with sales worth $14 billion in beauty and personal care, though India’s share is a mere sliver compared to China, where looking good is serious business, worth $62 billion. Yes, things are aglow in beauty—at least on the outside.

While fashion has justifiably got a bad rap for poor environmental practices, beauty pollution, though smaller in volume, is highly insidious. Microbeads and microplastics like glitter are impossible to shore out of oceans. Avobenzone in sunscreens is now proven to deplete coral reefs. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in fragrances and hairsprays contribute to smog and air pollution. The indiscriminate use of palm oil in 70% of cosmetics has led to massive deforestation. According to a study commissioned by Zero Waste Europe, our use of beauty and personal care products produced 142 billion units of packaging in 2018 alone. Add to this the total energy utilized, plus the giant carbon footprint for transferring ingredients and finished goods. As we enter 2020, our look-good liability seems bigger than ever.

Biodegradable perforated paper filler can be a replacement for bubble wrap; and Amazon’s biodegradable packaging.
Biodegradable perforated paper filler can be a replacement for bubble wrap; and Amazon’s biodegradable packaging. (Photographs by Amazon and Alamy)

“The beauty industry must work collectively to resolve the problem and big brands have to take the initiative,” says Nonita Kalra, editor, Harper’s Bazaar India. Unlike fashion, where brands such as Prada, Adidas and Zara have come together to form The Fashion Pact to work towards sustainability goals, big beauty brands are yet to come together for a collaborative push.

This is especially relevant today when cosmetic giants are challenged with the growth of smaller, green brands. A 2019 report by London-based analytics firm Future Market Insights predicts the global organic beauty market will touch $54 billion by 2027. Clean formulations, efficient recycling, non-toxic packaging have become basic hygiene practices expected by millennial customers. But even clean brands with better formulae and packaging aren’t addressing beauty’s biggest problem—the disposal of waste.

The Unpretty

“The definition of R&D has to now change from research and development to recycle and develop,” says Kalra. A 2017 survey by beauty e-tailer Skin Store found that the average woman used no less than 16 products just on her face. This is in addition to beauty and personal care items like razors, combs, toothbrushes, tweezers, filers, buffers, blenders, cleansing tools, massagers and applicators.

If you use just one unit each of shampoo, cream, soap and toothpaste every month, you would have discarded close to 500 pieces in 10 years. But these are just the basics. Tangle Teezer, the cult plastic detangling brush, sells four units every 20 seconds. Popular micellar water Bioderma Sensibio H20 sells one every 3 seconds.

The problem of packaging is compounded by the use of mixed material—paper, fabric or metal fused with plastic—that makes recycling exceptionally tedious. An ongoing problem, wet wipes made with a mix of fabric and plastic were responsible for 93% of sewer blockages in the UK, according to a 2017 study by the trade body Water UK. Sheet masks have the same composition. Plus, they are packed in single-use plastic lined with foil, which makes them impossible to recycle.

The Simple Life

“People talk about multitasking but we need to look at simplification—a Marie Kondo-ization of beauty,” says Kalra. Perhaps it was this thought that led to the innovative Harper’s Bazaar India’s Conscious Beauty Awards, which bypassed the usual beauty advertisers for products that emphasized sustainability. An industry first, Kalra says these awards were an initiative to change the narrative. Geeta Rao, contributing editor and former beauty director at Vogue India, echoes similar sentiments. “As editors, we are guilty because we have encouraged the need for multiple things,” she says. “The face isn’t just a face any more but different parts requiring separate products.”

If you think in terms of skin condition, today we have more cases of allergies than ever before. “Now I directly correlate it with a product that they are using, whereas earlier the cause was hormones or diet,” says Kiran Kaur Sethi, a dermatologist and founder of Isya Aesthetics, Delhi. These days, she says, 20-30% of her clientele comes with product-induced irritations, compared with a mere 1% six years ago.

Corporate Responsibility

“Being green is difficult—even olive oil used in cleansers and make-up removers has a negative impact on the environment once it goes down the drain,” says Pedro Catala, London-based pharmacist, cosmetologist and founder of green beauty brand Twelve Beauty. The problem is that beauty doesn’t have much legroom. Since most formulae contain water, they need the right containers and preservatives. And even though the percentage of “woke” consumers is increasing, the majority still demand a pleasing scent, silicone-y textures, and light packaging.

“Our long-term success depends on our ability to make conscious decisions that embed sustainable practices throughout business,” says Rohan Vaziralli, general manager, Estée Lauder Companies, India, which includes brands such as Bobbi Brown, Jo Malone, Smashbox, Tom Ford fragrances and M.A.C under its umbrella. By 2025, they aim to make 75-100% of their packaging recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled or recoverable. Hindustan Unilever Ltd is taking measures to move to 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. “Recently, we also announced two new commitments—reduce our use of virgin plastic packaging by 50% and help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell by 2025,” says their company spokesperson.

In fact, domestic brands are quicker to change than multinationals firms. Last year, Soul Tree burst the packaging bubble by becoming the first brand to ship products using only biodegradable packaging. Vishal Bhandari, founder and CEO of Soul Tree, insisted that even the tape used to seal the packages was made of paper. “Additionally, the organic waste that is left over after making extracts is re-routed into the biogas plant that gives energy to manufacture our products,” explains Bhandari.

“When we started Kama Ayurveda, we were already using recyclable PET in our packaging,” says Vivek Sahni, founder, Kama Ayurveda. This year, the brand is testing a project in its Khan Market outlet, in Delhi, under which old Kama bottles can be returned for recycling. “We will make this available across all stores by April 2020, and incentivize it by offering a discount or samples in exchange for bottles,” adds Sahni. Kama also works with the Ila Foundation, a not-for-profit based in Delhi-National Capital Region, to send damaged soaps and unused oils to those who cannot afford beauty products. In addition, expired or damaged goods are given to agencies specializing in waste management, instead of being dumped in a landfill.

Refillable containers is the other buzzword in beauty packaging. Internationally, Olay offered its best-selling Regenerist Whip Moisturiser in a refillable container with a carton made of recycled paper. Closer home, Pahadi Local collects empty containers of its products from your doorstep, sterilizing and reusing them for packaging. “Part of an initiative called Pahadi Preserve, we give a 50ml complimentary bottle of Gutti Ka Tel in exchange for five empty bottles with their next purchase,” says founder Jessica Jayne.

Online retailers such as Amazon and Nykaa are also making changes. “Earlier this year, we introduced packaging-free shipment (PFS) and introduced ‘paper cushions’ into our packaging process,” says a spokesperson for Amazon India. “We collected plastic waste equivalent to our usage in Maharashtra, since last year.”

Amazon has extended this initiative to a national level in September, and identified collection agencies to help it collect as much plastic waste as possible by the end of the year. Eliminating single-use plastic from its operations by June 2020 is also in the works.

Nykaa has recently started using sustainable packaging solutions, with cardboard and paper bubble wrap. “Packaging can be dropped at designated municipal bins or at CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) designated collection centres or can be sent to any of our warehouses,” says Manoj Jaiswal, chief supply chain officer at Nykaa. Look for details on waste disposal on your purchase confirmation email or their home page.

The plans for sustainable beauty practices are well-intentioned but there’s room for much more. Instead of expecting consumers to drop off waste, brands and e-tailers should be proactive in waste collection. Corporate social responsibility projects for beauty should include the construction of recycling facilities, especially those that address challenging components such as compostable plastic and mixed materials unique to the industry.


“Bottle-to-bottle recycling only happens in a few European countries,” says Manik Thapar, founder of waste management company Eco Wise, which operates out of 15 cities in India. “What happens mostly is downcycling; the material is granulated and turned into something else.” Plastic is graded into categories depending on whether or not it can be recycled. Items that can be recycled include bottles, cans, food trays, wraps and foil, shopping bags, furniture, luggage, toys, car bumpers, CD covers, cosmetics, toys and costume jewellery.

Packaging items made of different kinds of plastic and/or compostable material or bioplastics cannot be recycled because the technology to recycle bioplastics is rare around the world. “Bioplastics also need to be recycled separately, but they get mixed with other waste and pollute the entire recycling chain,” says Thapar.

A 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that the production of bioplastics resulted in increased pollutants. This was due to the fertilizers and pesticides used for crops and the chemical processing required to convert them into plastic. A 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Research noted that in the case of plastic made with renewable energy sources, emissions could reduce by up to 75%, compared to the best varieties of bioplastics that can (as of now) only reduce emissions up to 25%.


“Every time I look at the jars of beauty products that are thrown out, it bothers me on a personal level,” says Sahni. He echoes the collective sentiment of consumers who want to be responsible but lack the time or initiative to take action. “It’s a no-brainer to reuse and repurpose—be imperfect, but start somewhere,” says Kalra.

The first thing is to do is reduce consumption. “If you look at your bathroom shelf, you will find dozens of half-used bottles,” says Paayal Mahajan, founder of the clean beauty brand Essential Body Couture, which uses reusable leather and MIRON violetglass in its packaging.

But consumption and recycling must go hand in hand. While there is no doubt that beauty brands have to take responsibility for what they create, recycling has to begin at home.

This year, Ecowise started a recycling drive, collecting recyclable waste one day a month. “Out of the 500 people who were complaining, only 10% signed up,” says Thapar. Personal recycling is rare despite the fact that there are services. Paperman in Chennai, Vital Waste in Kolkata, Saahas Zero Waste and Citizengage in Bengaluru are just a few options in the burgeoning waste management industry, many of which specifically tackle the problem of plastic.

The truth is that without our efforts most recyclable products will end up in landfills, which are tightly packed with paper, fibre and plastic. Remember, the term biodegradable means degrading naturally in dirt. But because landfills are spilling with waste, there isn’t nearly enough mud to easily biodegrade even the most pliable waste.

Eventually, though, it’s a collective responsibility. As consumers, we must use less and recycle more. Opinion makers have to steer conversations towards minimal routines, while brands need to take responsibility for waste. None of us can let the ball drop.

Vasudha Rai is a Delhi-based writer.

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