Tackling Beauty’s Small Plastics Problem

Jenny B. Fine and Jayme Cyk
·7 min read

Recyclable small plastics tend to be the forgotten element in the perplexing world of sustainability. Think pumps, caps and manual toothbrushes. And while refillable packaging and glass bottles are a great place to start, brands need to create demand to work toward a zero-waste small plastics future.

“Small plastics are tricky,” said Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact for Credo Beauty. “Very small plastics under two inches are recyclable in special take-back programs. They can be recycled curbside if they remain attached to the primary package, and if the plastic type is the same. If a bottle and cap are both PET [polyethylene terephthalate], the end-user could rinse the empty bottle, reattach the cap and put it in the curbside bin. But the customer can only know that if they are told (caps are basically never labeled with a resin code), which is one of the reasons that Credo is pushing for clear, accurate disposal instructions. It shouldn’t be ‘wish-cycling.’”

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According to Kat Hoelck, design director at Future Prosperity, an educational platform and retailer focused on combating the plastic pollution crisis, and design communications professor at Parsons School of Design, brands are accustomed to making their packaging dynamic and distinctive for shelf impact with little consideration for the object’s end-of-life. “Good design is more than aesthetics,” said Hoelck. “It doesn’t matter how chic something looks. If a designed object isn’t rooted in circularity, it is inherently passé. If it isn’t solving this issue, it isn’t relevant.”

While consumers care about where their products end up, they are confused by small plastics’ many nuances. According to Trendalytics, searches for sustainable beauty are up 37 percent to last year and are increasing at an accelerated rate. Social posts are up 45 percent.

In the mass market, Colgate is aiming to reduce small plastics with its latest manual toothbrush, Keep, $9.99 for the starter kit and $4.99 for the refill kit, which includes two brush heads. Keep is designed with a snap-on replaceable brush head and a reusable aluminum handle, so it uses 80 percent less plastic waste. “By 2025, our goal is to eliminate one-third of our virgin plastics in packaging,” said Vance Merolla, worldwide director of global sustainability at Colgate-Palmolive. “Another goal is making all of our packaging recyclable, compostable, or reusable by 2025 and cutting the amount of toothbrush plastic waste by 50 percent.”

Keep’s brush head is made from polypropylene with nylon bristles, which is not recyclable in a mainstream environment, so the brand will take those back through Terracycle. Greg Corra, director of global packaging innovation at Colgate-Palmolive, said Colgate is working to develop alternate ways to mainstream recycled small plastics that do not exist today.

“It’s important to build a movement,” said Dana Medema, vice president and general manager of Colgate-Palmolive. “Half-a-billion toothbrushes were bought in 2020 and if we can get everybody to move to Keep, that would be the equivalent of 400 million toothbrushes not landing in the landfill.”

But for small plastics to become recyclable, demand is essential. “Every time I talk to our material partners, they note they would love to focus on small plastics, but don’t have an audience,” said Patricia Miller, chief executive officer of M4, a design and manufacturing house at the forefront of bio-resins. “That said, beauty is really pushing for change and highlighting options and alternates that I’m not seeing as much in other industry segments.”

Bogobrush, $8, a manual toothbrush that comes in two variants, a recyclable and compostable iteration, uses corn-based resin infused with plant particles. “A lot of manufacturers are not set up to know how to work with many materials,” said Heather McDougall, CEO of Bogobrush. “The more we create demand for alternatives, [the more] we support the whole system.”

Hoelck noted there are packaging manufacturers innovating the design pump and spray top model to be made readily recyclable. “A constraint here is that manufacturers only have a set number of styles to choose from unless a brand can afford the huge minimum orders required to custom design toppers that are in alignment with their brand’s aesthetic,” she added.

That said, Bathing Culture is working with a group of indie brands to make sure that there will be enough demand for crafting 100 percent recyclable small plastics. Early on, Bathing Culture worked with Recology, a waste management company whose goal is to become zero-landfill, to talk about packaging possibilities. “A lot of people get stuck on reduce, reuse, recycle,” said Tim Hollinger, cofounder of Bathing Culture. “For us, it’s more important to reduce and reuse. Recycling can be great, but it has a lot of challenges.”

Another brand looking to solve the challenges within small plastics is Mob Beauty. “Our first goal is to have consumers think about the way they’ve been buying beauty,” said Alisha Gallagher, cofounder and chief brand officer.

The majority of Mob’s packaging is 100 percent post-consumer recycled and its standard is at least 50 percent. “I’m working with a team to develop an alternate stream that will deal with small beauty packaging,” said Victor Casale, cofounder and ceo of Mob. “Even though our lipstick capsule and refill together are 100 percent recyclable, if you put it in your blue [recycling] box, chances are it’ll fall through the cracks and go into the landfill. We are piloting a program, which we should be implemented in April.”

The hurdles with small plastics have to be finessed with behavioral change. Dove is tackling it head-on with its 0% Aluminum Refillable Deodorant, $14.99 for the starter kit and $9.99 for the refill kit, a stainless steel case available in three scents. “In the first year of launching this, we are estimating to help reduce virgin plastic waste by around 30 tons,” said Dawn Hedgepeth, Unilever’s vice president of deodorants and skin care. “By 2023, we aim to have reduced the waste of virgin plastic by up to 300 tons and have our refills made from 100 percent recycled plastic. By 2025, all Dove packaging will be designed to be plastic-free, made from 100 percent PCR plastics, or reusable/refillable.”

Sándor, a hair care range launched in October by hairstylist Sabrina Szinay and model Taja Feistner, who is studying energy and sustainability policy at Penn State, has taken an innovative approach to packaging. The bottles are 100 percent aluminum and the pump is made of durable and rustproof stainless steel, which is sold separately to incentivize customers to reuse it. “We realized that 552 million plastic shampoo bottles are being sold in the U.S. alone each year and 90 percent doesn’t get recycled,” said Szinay.

One of the ways Sándor educates customers is directly on its packaging by sharing what to recycle and what to compost. They also send reminder emails when customers are nearing the end of their bottles on how to reuse the pump and recycle the bottle. “We aim to keep our community informed while taking the guesswork out of sustainability,” said Feistner. “In order for countries to transform into sustainable economies, policy changes must be enacted that hold companies accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, policy change is a very slow process. That’s why, as a company that cares about our collective future, we have to be the ones pushing sustainability forward — innovating, leading with sustainable practices and working with sustainable materials and businesses.”

From a retailer standpoint, Credo is working to get all of its indie brands together to crowdsource so that the packaging suppliers feel there’s less of a risk in making more sustainable and smarter design. “By June 2021, Credo will outlaw single-use items and by 2023, any plastic has to be at least 50 percent recycled content or more,” said Davis. “We’re at a critical juncture and the amount that we consume and waste as a country, but also as a beauty industry, is mind-blowing and has to change. We don’t have a choice.”

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