Plastic is one of the most polarizing topics in sustainability today, and each year continues to reveal more about its place in the beauty industry. Sustainability is a constantly evolving conversation and the rate at which cosmetic plastic bottle is produced, used and disposed of has long outpaced the research, technology and innovation needed to understand the consequences of our actions, making it quite challenging to gather data that’s specific to cosmetics. Yet, we do know that the volume of plastic which can accumulate during the process of making a single product is sometimes staggering - if you make cosmetics products for-profit and are looking to grow, hardly any brand is exempt from the presence of plastic.
In a roadmap for sustainability released by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2018, the executive summary reads: The benefits of plastic are undeniable. The material is cheap, lightweight and easy to make. These qualities have led to a boom in the production of plastic over the past century since the 1950s. We are already unable to cope with the amount of plastic waste we generate unless we rethink the way we manufacture, use and manage plastics. Ultimately, tackling one of the biggest challenges of our time will require governments to regulate, businesses to innovate and individuals to act.
Let’s admit that plastic has gathered a bad reputation - you might even say it’s been demonized in some cases. To be clear, there is no denying that waste is a problem, but to blanket shame plastic without context is to miss an opportunity for a closer look. If you want to dive deeper into all the factors that contribute to plastic waste, take a look at this hugely informative and fascinating collaboration from Oxford University and the Global Change Data Lab:
Particularly in 2020, single-use consumption of plastics across multiple industries has seen a massive increase due to essential sanitary and safety precautions needed to manage the spread of COVID-19. It’s important to note that single-use plastic lotion bottle is a cornerstone of essential hygiene measures within the medical industry from masks, gloves, gowns and medical instruments. We doubt that we will comprehend the waste consequences of single use plastic throughout 2020 for sometime to come.
As a beauty brand this is undeniably a charged conversation to have, as plastic is dotted across our packaging chain and understanding the trade-offs is key. From health effects, to degradation, to ecosystems impact, plastic could easily be a whole PhD dissertation, and it is challenging to limit our focus when this material is a global common denominator of modern consumption. We are attempting to share a simplified perspective on the presence of plastics within the cosmetics industry to better understand the benefits and pitfalls of this material.
We are interested in the life cycle of plastic packaging in cosmetics - more specifically, the contrast between the production of plastic, versus the use of plastic, versus the end-of-life for plastic. As PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is the most commonly used plastic in cosmetic packaging and for Josh Rosebrook products, we will be focusing on this material to exemplify the pros and cons of plastic packaging.
Specializing in life cycle assessment (LCA) and solid waste management, a US independent consulting firm, Franklin Associates, has conducted multiple research studies on PET across various industries. In a 2009 study on the comparison of beverage containers (very similar to cosmetic containers), Franklin Associates found that the production of a PET bottle was far more energy efficient when compared to the production of an aluminum can and glass bottle, respectively. The amount of energy it took to create a PET bottle was 11 million BTU, vs. 16 million BTU for the aluminium can and 26.6 BTU for the glass bottle. The CO2 equivalent (think greenhouse gas emissions) was 1,125 for the PET bottle, 2,766 for the aluminum can, and 4,848 for the cosmetic glass bottle. When ranking material production in relation to energy efficiency, plastic is second right after wood, and aluminum and glass are last. There is conflicting evidence regarding how the world’s oil production contributes to the manufacturing of plastic.
A large majority of finished cosmetic products housed in plastic are multi-use: they are not disposed of after a single use and the amount of times they are used according to function can range into several hundred uses. Depending on the size and type, the product could also be kept in use for several weeks to multiple months. It is interesting to note that to bring a cosmetic product to market, the formula has to undergo a packaging compatibility test - depending on the ingredients and the function of the product, plastic might be a necessity to safely protect the formula over time and ensure a safe customer experience. For example, glass liquid bottles intended for use in the shower could be troublesome to manage safely.
With the growing importance of appearance for both men and women, there is a huge demand for cosmetics in today’s market. However, a manufacturer of specialty cosmetics needs to be able to make an impression on the consumer and ensure that they try the wonderful product first. Additionally, consumers now look for more than a terrific cosmetic, they want it at a lower price, and are also eco-conscious. Using tube packaging for specialty cosmetics meets multiple requirements of manufacturers.
Consumers prefer the convenience that cosmetic tube packaging provides. While cosmetic squeeze tubes were originally used for food products such as jams, jellies, ad mayonnaise, they are now being used by cosmetics manufacturers. Consumers love the convenience of tube packaging that comes with a variety of heads that makes dispensing cosmetics much easier. Consumers can easily dispense the right amount of cosmetics they need, reducing wasted products.