A Not-So-Beautiful Problem: Plastic Pollution in the Beauty Industry

There's a lot of joy to be found in browsing the shelves of Ulta, Sephora, or a local drugstore, searching for the perfect ruby-red lipstick or picking out a new face mask. The stores are lined with rows upon rows of colorful boxes, bottles, tubes, and palettes, each promising to help potential buyers look their very best.

SMC Dance major Marii Kawabata attempts to shield herself from the onslaught of beauty industry plastic pollution. (Photo illustration/Glenn Zucman/The Corsair)

SMC Dance major Marii Kawabata attempts to shield herself from the onslaught of beauty industry plastic pollution. (Photo illustration/Glenn Zucman/The Corsair)

With the influx of new companies, trends, and products, it should come as no surprise that the beauty industry is one of the most profitable businesses in the world. According to Reuters, the global cosmetics market was valued at over $500 billion in 2017 and is predicted to rise to over $800 billion by 2023.

But beneath the glitz and glamour of artfully packaged makeup and skincare lies a far more insidious problem that has plagued the industry for decades: plastic waste.

According to Vogue magazine, 70% of beauty industry waste derives from packaging. In this case, packaging refers both to the containers that encase the products, such as a bottle which holds moisturizer, and the outside material that covers the container. Cellophane, for example, is often used to wrap products.

Although plastic pollution comes from a large number of industries – single-use plastic water bottles, for example, are perhaps the most well-known polluter – the beauty industry has only recently begun to receive scrutiny for its heavy plastic use.

In December 2018, Teen Vogue published an article which detailed how the beauty industry's reliance on plastic is causing serious damage to oceans.

Amy Westervelt explained in her article, "The plastic often winds up on beaches nearest the gyres or in the stomachs of seabirds and fish, where it eventually takes up so much space they can no longer fit food."

Westervelt also reported on a study conducted by Euromonitor, which found that in 2010, the beauty industry produced 65.62 billion plastic packaging units. By 2017, that number had risen to 76.8 billion, not including the plastic accessories which are often included with products.

Many companies have begun to make strides toward reducing their plastic waste output, with some companies even becoming completely waste-free. Garnier, for example, has partnered with TerraCycle in order to reduce plastic waste. Customers can send some of their empty containers to Garnier, who will then send them to TerraCycle, where they will be used to make new products.

As commendable as this is, it is simply not enough.

In an article published in January 2019, the Independent argued that corporations need to do better. Louise Edge, a British senior oceans campaigner, told the Independent, "the individual commitments being made by companies to date just don’t go far enough. Making packaging more recyclable is a step forward, but making more recyclable packaging isn’t."

"With profits the main concern for global beauty brands, we've seen only a relatively minor change in the way companies are tackling sustainability and actively finding alternative packaging material," the Independent's Jessica Morgan said.

Changing the ways in which products are packaged is not an easy process. Many beauty and personal care products often require delicate packaging in order for it to remain viable. Serums containing Vitamin C, for example, must be kept in opaque containers, as any exposure to sunlight will cause the product to spoil.

With the threat of irreversible damage looming over the planet, it is no longer enough to simply hope that the beauty industry will change its ways. Just as laws were passed to ban the use of plastic microbeads, so too must countries take legislative action to compel beauty corporations to move toward waste-free packaging.

Beauty cannot come at the expense of our planet.