Waste From the Beauty Industry Is Still a Problem

“As I’m sure you’ve heard, we — humans inhabiting Earth — have got a real situation on our hands.” I wrote that sentence a few months ago as the opening to a story that’s in Allure’s April print issue. Really holds up, doesn’t it? But I was not actually talking about the global pandemic that would soon bring the world economy to a halt, take hundreds of thousands of lives, and leave us with a very uncertain near-term future.

Back when I wrote that sentence, in the alternate reality that was late February, I was talking about a different crisis of the natural world: the immense waste that we have long been unleashing on the planet every hour of every day. The next lines of the story: “The ice is melting; the waters are rising. Vast spirals of plastic waste are whirling through the seas.”

But in this new world of lockdowns and very immediate fear: Do we still care as much about our impact on the Earth? I think a lot of us do more than ever. In the last weeks, we have watched our carbon footprints become toeprints. If we are lucky, we have not ventured far from our front doors and have become much more conscious of what we’re bringing into our homes — and what we’re sending out in the trash. We’re starting to see what a more sustainable lifestyle might actually look like — from our pantries to our showers, medicine cabinets, and vanities.

Because, yes, out there in the seas there are dervishes of water bottles, milk cartons, grocery bags, takeout containers. But also: shampoo bottles, lipstick tubes, shadow palettes, powder compacts, lotion pumps, and my God, so many razors, and jars that once held cushiony creams infused with high-potency vitamin C and low-molecular-weight hyaluronic acid.

The detritus that we leave in our glowy-skinned, bouncy-haired wake is immense. It contributes in no small part to the fact that by the middle of this century — that’s not as far away as you think — the ocean may contain more plastic by weight than fish. (Maybe you even ate some recently: A quarter of the fish sold in California, for example, has been found to contain plastic.) The amount of end-of-life plastic packaging, which includes bottles, jars, bags, and “other,” surrounding U.S. products has increased by over 120 times since 1960. In 2018, in the U.S. alone, almost 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were created just for beauty and personal care products, according to Euromonitor International. “But we recycle,” you say? Sadly, not so much.

Twenty years ago, as a wee beauty editor, I would thrill at the crinkle of cellophane as I opened a new face cream, and the excitement would mount as I pulled back layers of cardboard. Oh, and look — a tiny spoon. Today, those trappings feel superfluous. And worse: irresponsible. I can no longer look at a plastic tub without imagining it bobbing on the high seas. Enough already with all the packaging.

Rumblings of change have begun. The L’Oréal Group and Unilever have pledged to make 100 percent of their plastic packaging reusable, refillable, or compostable by 2025. L’Oréal says it will source up to 50 percent of that packaging from recycled material. Procter & Gamble has a program that puts Pantene in refillable containers and says 100 percent of its products’ packaging will be recyclable or reusable by 2030.

But significant, magnificent change will also require us to turn away from the earth-shattering conveniences to which we’ve become accustomed, like handy plastic pumps and single-use everything. It will require us to buy with a new consciousness and to embrace a different idea of what makes a beauty product feel revelatory. When I wrote the first version of this story in February, these statements felt like a very tall order. But today, as so many of us have rapidly and radically transformed our daily lives, this kind of reimagining, of new consciousness, suddenly seems like it could actually become reality. Let’s keep it that way.

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