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It’s no secret that the health of our planet is in a state of emergency. From our oceans filling with toxic microplastics to ancient ecosystems collapsing under the pressure of man-made waste, the way we dispose of our trash is taking its toll. More than 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry. Only 34 percent of Americans recycle their used beauty products. If this continues, there will be 12 billion tons of plastic in landfills by 2050: that’s the equivalent of 35,000 Empire State Buildings. The UN has declared the current situation a ‘planetary crisis’ and it comes down to each of us to re-evaluate our waste habits and get informed on best practices. Recycling is pretty confusing in general – we’ve all spent our fair share of time looking back and forth between the different recycling bins at Whole Foods trying to figure out where to dump. When it comes to beauty products, it can seem even more confusing. We’re here to clear it up.
Every city has its own rules as to what they will accept as recycling. A quick click to your local government’s website should tell you what they do and don’t accept. Different communities take different materials because they use varying material recovery systems. It also has to do with the materials the market your city sells its recycling to accepts. After your recycling is picked up from the curb, it’s usually sorted and sold to other companies for the actual recycling. Until last year, China was the largest importer of recyclable materials, accepting more than 30 millions tons of waste annually from all over the world. Last year, they began strictly enforcing restrictions on the importation of recycled materials which has presented a huge challenge to the global recycling industry. It is more urgent than ever that we figure out a more sustainable way to handle our waste.
Once you know what your city accepts, check the labels. The paper and cardboard boxes in which the products are housed are almost recyclable. Just to be sure, check for the Mobius loop before you toss. Here’s the catch though – not every package with a Mobius loop may be recyclable where you live. That’s why it’s important to check your local rules first. On plastic empties, you’ll see a similar symbol with a number inside that identifies what type of plastic the package is made of. Most recyclable plastics have a number 1 or 2. A number 3 denotes PVC which belongs in the trash. Numbers 4-7 will depend on your local rules. Some places may accept them curbside, others may require those plastics to be taken to a local pickup point.
Often, small format containers can’t be recycled because smaller items don’t flow well through curbside recycling programs. Most facilities are automated with optical and physical sorting machines which means anything under a 6 oz package size will get screened out or caught in the disposal stream, eventually making its way to a landfill. For these smaller items, there is a program through TerraCycle which offers free recycling for haircare, skincare, and makeup empties. All you have to do is send them in. When it comes to anything multilayer or multi-material it’s usually not recyclable because it either has a coating on the inside of the package or that the package is made up of different kinds of plastic. Most of the time, anything in a pouch or squeezable tube cannot be recycled. The same goes for pumps and droppers.
Make sure you clean out your empties thoroughly – containers with product residue can lower the value of finished recycled product. If you can, remove the labels too because the adhesive can cause problems. It’s not always necessary but if it’s easy to do, the extra step can help. After you clean out the packaging, re-attach the cap (if it’s recyclable). A cap alone is too small to go through the sorting system. As a general rule of thumb, when in doubt, chuck it in the trash. Though some may argue the opposite, if it’s not accepted at your recycling facility it can clog up the whole system – a problem which is causing major issues in the recycling industry. All it takes is a little research and a few extra seconds to check the label before you toss. Together we can make a difference.