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Dirty Secrets Behind Beauty Recycling

Dirty Secrets Behind Beauty Recycling

Ideas for more sustainable beauty with Amy Hammes


The Lab Edit is happy to introduce a 3-part educational blog series about the truths behind beauty recycling. Join us as we dive deep with recycling expert, Amy Hammes, about the need for better recycling, along with a fresh take on what the industry can do to begin creating positive change with sustainable beauty.


Amy, tell us more about yourself and what you do?

I am the Recycling Specialist for the City of Burbank. I work on building waste reduction programs and public outreach to help residents and businesses understand how recycling works. Prior to joining the City, I was the Donations Director for EcoSet Consulting where I created an innovative materials reuse and food donation program from production set cast-offs. I am also a current Board member of the California Product Stewardship Council that works on manufacturer responsibility policy to help in the end of life management of problematic products.


For starters, what can beauty manufacturers and consumers do better when it comes to recycling?

We have to rethink the focus on “what can consumers do” when they have little control on packaging choices. While consumers do have their role in how MUCH they buy (don’t buy, try and throw away!), the focus needs to be with MANUFACTURERS who create and market unrecyclable single use packaging. Back in the late 1980’s the plastics industry hijacked the highly recognizable recycling symbol (chasing arrows) by making it a plastic resin identifier, not a greenlight for recyclability.  What this did was lead the public to think any plastic products with that symbol are recyclable, when most were not. This has led to consumer confusion and frustration, especially since every community seems to have different recycling standards.  We need a NATIONAL policy with truthful packaging labeling and consistency of accepted materials in local recycling programs. Then it will be much clearer for consumers so they can start to understand and then make better choices.


Do you think we’ve been receiving the wrong message about recycling…especially in beauty? 

All industries are a part of this but the beauty industry has some unique issues because their priority was towards marketing and packaging design in order to stand out from their competitors. Beauty over substance that ignored recyclability has resulted in legions of difficult packaging that can’t be recycled. Glitter coated items are not recyclable! 

Decades of delaying attention to recycling has gotten us here.  When Unilever or the American Chemistry Council now say everything will be “recyclable by XXX year,” my first thought is you folks “are late to the game.”  The plastic industry pushed for cities to adopt expensive recycling programs 30 years ago, yet were not serious about making their packaging actually recyclable until now.  And watch the words recyclABLE because it does not mean it “will be recyclED”.  True recyclability depends if the recycler can make money on the recycled commodity (paper, metal, glass, etc.) they collect.  Meaning, it’s about market demand and the economic feasibility of collecting and sorting it all because if recyclers can’t sell it, it’s trash. So manufacturers all need to learn how recycling really works instead of thinking recyclers can adapt to their constantly changing “boutique” packaging that will ultimately end up in the trash if they refuse to learn the basics. 


Marketing steers consumer behavior, so this is on the beauty industry and their influencers to fix. Consumers need education, but also the tools to make better choices. When there are no choices on certain products and EVERYTHING is in un-recyclable plastic, is it really their fault?

Government plays a role by setting policy, incentives, framework, and helping set the foundations of supply chains by creating infrastructure and leveling the playing field. We need to eliminate free riders and externalities (socializing the harm but privatizing the profits). Then industry should be set up to take it from there with oversight and accountability.


What is the job of the beauty industry and the consumer when it comes to recycling going forward?

The consumer’s role is to pay the true cost of a product and understand “cheap” has external costs that we all pay. No more recycling symbol on a product if it’s not accepted for recycling at MOST local recycling programs. Industry’s role is more environmental transparency and educate consumers—not gaslight or add more confusion because a company needs to deflect away from their harm. Leveling with your customers is a vital first step.


What are big issues in beauty packaging that we might not be aware of?

The biggest things ironically are the small things, and that would be size matters.  Small things (under 4”) are actually a nuisance and don’t get recycled because they slip through our recycling sorting machines, are difficult to bale, have no market to sell to, and things like caps, can roll out of the facility and become street litter. The key to all of this is:


  • Reduce packaging (not “lightweighting” since that hurts recyclers that actually gets paid in weight, so less packaging and unnecessary layers).


  • Refillables (pumps that are universal and fit all bottle mouths; refill bottles bought separately.


  • Uniformity (boutique packaging materials do not scale for commercial recycling/commodities market realities). Adopt a standard style and materials of packaging like beverage containers did (think: beer bottles).


  • Tethered caps—caps are a huge problem for street litter and recycler residuals (trash).


  • Concentrated products (just add water)


  • Tubes and other containers that can fully open so the consumer can get all the product out. (If a container has liquid or lotion, that is considered contaminated).
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