HomeSustainable cosmetics and the environmentIs cosmetic packaging bad for the environment?

Many people view packaging as a major environmental problem; there is too much of it and nothing is being done to encourage minimisation. However, this is an extreme point of view. All of the evidence shows that packaging does a good job in protecting the products it contains, the quantity of packaging for most products is satisfactory for the job it does, and there are laws in place that require packaging to be minimised.

As part of CTPA's work with expert sustainability organisation WRAP's Clear on Plastics Campaign for beauty products, this vlog series explains why and how plastic packaging is used for cosmetic products.

Many people view packaging as a major environmental problem; there is too much of it and nothing is being done to encourage minimisation. However, this is an extreme point of view. All of the evidence shows that packaging does a good job in protecting the products it contains, the quantity of packaging for most products is satisfactory for the job it does, and there are laws in place that require packaging to be minimised. While we would all agree that there are examples where the amount of packaging for a specific product can be reduced, in general a lot of work is being done to control packaging and its impacts.

The problem with packaging is that, of all the resources and energy used to make a product, packaging is the part that consumers see most and think they understand. But do they really understand? If we take a close look at what packaging actually does, we can see that the matter is not quite so simple.

The main aim for packaging is to protect its contents from spoiling and to enable the consumer to use the product.

It must be strong enough to:

  • withstand transport and storage;

  • fit on shelves in supermarkets or other retailers;

  • look attractive to the people who might buy it; and

  • stay looking good throughout its life - which for cosmetics may be several months or even years.

However, it must also be labelled with lots of legally required information. In the case of cosmetic products, that includes a list of ingredients and, where necessary, how to use the product safely.By law, packaging must also be able to be recovered, which includes recycling, and manufacturers must pay for this. The law also requires manufacturers to minimise packaging.

Cosmetics manufacturers try to strike the right balance between a product that looks good and minimising packaging whilst taking into account all of the factors mentioned above. They encourage their packaging suppliers to look at new methods and technologies for making packaging, everything from more environmentally-friendly printing inks to improved design of bottles, or from new machinery to using more recycled materials. This is a normal part of everyday business.

With all of this in mind, you should remember that there is no such thing as 'sustainable packaging'. There can only ever be a more sustainable way of manufacturing a certain product.

Too much packaging?

Did you know that packaging makes up less than 3% of all waste sent to landfill? Or that 60% of packaging from industry and households is recovered and recycled? Or that the UK uses less packaging per person than most other large European Union (EU) countries? In fact, cosmetics packaging is less than 1.5% by weight of all packaging used in the UK.

In spite of this, consumers, media and politicians frequently comment about excess or unnecessary packaging. In particular, waste has to be collected and disposed of and there is a general belief that there is just too much packaging. Cosmetics companies take these issues seriously. Within the constraints listed above, companies are obliged to use the minimum amount of packaging, including the packaging used to transport products to retailers.

In addition, many people don't realise that manufacturers already have legal obligations to recover and recycle packaging. The 1994 European Union Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste requires packaging to be minimised, not to contain any hazardous materials which affect recovery, and set steadily increasing targets for the amount of packaging to be recovered and recycled. But, once the recycling target has been reached, the remainder can be recovered by composting or by incineration with energy recovery. These targets and requirements entered into law in the UK in 1998.

This legal obligation is shared amongst the packaging supply chain. Importers of packaging, manufacturers of packaging, companies which put consumer products into packaging, and retailers which sell those products all have an obligation to recover and recycle a set percentage of that packaging. Although they can do it themselves, most companies join a collective scheme for a fee based on the amount of packaging in question. The collective scheme enters into long-term contracts with reprocessing companies to perform the recycling or recovery processes. These long-term contracts also provide the certainty reprocessors need to finance and expand the recovery infrastructure.

For all types of cosmetic products, companies do not use too much packaging deliberately. It is expensive and wasteful to over-package; it costs more to transport and costs more for recycling and recovery.

Why can't all packaging be recycled?

Although recycling is often the preferred option, not all packaging can be recycled without using more resources than are saved. For example, once a cosmetic product has been sent to a retailer, it may be sold anywhere in the UK. What happens then depends on the local facilities available for recovery or recycling of packaging waste. It does not make environmental sense to transport lightweight materials long distances for recycling and other methods, such as composting more locally, may be better. Similarly, small containers with remnants of products can contaminate a recycling process. The UK collective scheme system allows the experts working in the recovery and recycling industry to determine the best option.

What about luxury packaging?

Premium products are normally presented in packaging which is invariably more elaborate, using more expensive materials. Companies carry out consumer research to make sure they provide what their customers or potential customers expect from these types of products. Consumers' views are taken into account at the product design stage. However, manufacturers still try to minimise packaging whilst still meeting the higher level of expectation from their customers.

Packaging must have quality and be attractive enough to encourage people to buy the products. But companies also have experience of what happens when they go too far in reducing packaging below the level which consumers find acceptable; sales decrease. There is nothing more wasteful than a product that is never sold or used.

Sustainability of Packaging

True sustainability covers all aspects of a product's life cycle:

  • where do the raw materials come from, how are they grown, mined or manufactured;

  • how much energy is used;

  • how much waste is produced and how is it disposed of;

  • what other chemicals are used and how much water;

  • what are the transport costs between the various stages of manufacturing.

Packaging protects products from damage and stops waste but it has its own supply chain life cycle as well. Manufacturers of packaging also try to reduce the use of energy and water, minimise waste and the use of materials, and ensure their processes have little environmental impact.

So we can see that the minimisation of packaging by the cosmetics manufacturer is but a small part of sustainability. In fact, if each household lowered its central heating thermostat by 2 degrees, it would save nearly as much energy as is used to make the packaging for its whole year's supply of goods .

How Can I Recycle Used Packaging?

The important thing to remember is that the aim of recycling or recovery of packaging is to reduce the use of our natural resources and divert waste from landfill. However, without realising it, we can easily consume more resources than are saved by recycling. The following advice will help.

  • Do not make a special trip by car to deliver packaging for recycling; the petrol or diesel fuel used will greatly outweigh anything saved by recycling. Always combine a trip to a recycling point with another journey, such as the weekly shop.

  • Wash empty bottles but do not use fresh, clean hot water. Again, the energy used to heat the water will outweigh what is being saved by recycling. Used dishwashing water or water already used to wash you hands is a better choice.

  • If you have a kerbside collection system organised by your Local Authority, follow its advice on what types of waste are accepted and its advice on separating the waste into different types, such as plastic, glass, metal tins or cans, etc. Most Local Authorities now accept empty aerosols.

  • If you do not have kerbside collection, national supermarket chains, such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons or Asda, will have facilities to take packaging waste.

  • Local Authorities will also provide information on local recycling sites. The website has a postcode locator which lists the nearest recycling points and the types of waste accepted.

The following organisations provide information on recycling packaging waste:

  • The collective scheme organisation VALPAK has set up Recycle More, a website to provide information on recycling.

  • The UK Government has created Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP), an organisation that helps individuals, businesses and local authorities to reduce waste and recycle more.

Further Information

The UK Plastics Pact, which support The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy initiative, brings together organisations and individuals to change plastics for good. The UK Plastics Pact has produced a video to show why this is so important. CTPA is an official supporter of The UK Plastics Pact.

Defra's Advisory Committee on Packaging report, Packaging in Perspective, is available to download.

Towards Greener Households, a report by Dr Jan Kooijman, is available from INCPEN

The Environment Agency has a dedicated webpage on packaging waste for producers

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