Consider this your recycling cheat sheet.

By Angelika Pokovba
December 11, 2020
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While shopping sustainable beauty is the ultimate goal (see more clean beauty habits here), it’s still essential to recycle all empty beauty containers to avoid waste. In fact, 50 percent of people don’t even try to recycle their empty containers as it is deemed “inconvenient,” explains TerraCycle’s resident beauty industry expert Gina Herrera. The so-called incommodity results in 2.7 billion plastic bottles of solely bathroom waste hitting landfills every year. 

“The global cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging every year, including the cardboard that envelops perfumes, serums, and moisturizers that contributes to the loss of 18 million acres of forest each year,” explains Herrera. And while it isn’t necessarily the easiest to recycle empty beauty and skincare packaging, it is very much necessary for a sustainable future. It is also particularly important to avoid “wishcycling,” explains Danielle Jezienicki, Director of Sustainability for Grove Collaborative.

But here’s the thing: Beauty product packaging is especially confusing and tricky to recycle (think: mirrored glass, cardboard sleeves, paper inserts, etc). So, we asked recycling experts to break down exactly how to ensure your empties make it to the correct recycling plants. 

Check municipal recycling regulations 

First and foremost, you should always follow your local recycling laws to ensure that you are following the rules. You can also use resources like Recycle Coach, How2Recycle, and EARTH911 to check what recyclables are accepted. 

The bad news, however, is that Material Recycling Facilities, or MRFs, have quite strict regulations and don’t accept a large majority of beauty products. Be wary of the universal recycling symbol (triangle), as it is not the only way to indicate the recyclable nature of the container. Instead, pay attention to labels to get a better idea as to whether a product is recyclable. “In reality, only plastic items that have the numbers 1 or 2 printed within the arrows are widely recyclable in curbside recycling programs,” says Herrera. If so, your bathroom products can actually hit the blue or green bin with kitchen and household items because the United States follows a single-stream recycling program (this means that plastics can be recycled with other plastics and glass with other glass).

Alternative recycling programs

Don’t see a recycling symbol? Fortunately, some eco-conscious brands also offer internal recycling programs within their own facilities. TerraCycle, a private recycling business, actually works with Nordstrom for BEAUTYCYCLE, a free program that invites consumers to drop-off their beauty and skincare product packaging (regardless of brand) at in-store collection points for recycling, including items that are typically unrecyclable. Other brands that have individual in-house recycling include Garnier, Burt’s Bees, eos, Herbal Essences, L’Occitane, Josie Maran, and Paula’s Choice, to name a few. These brands generally work with programs like TerraCycle to properly process waste.

Credit: Getty Images

Mono-material recycling

Here’s a general rule of thumb for recycling beauty products: The less type of material that your package is made of, the more likely it is to be recyclable. When more material is used, the recycling process can be costly, time- and money-wise, for the separation process. And even if you try to do so yourself, cross-contaminated recyclables may not be accepted by local programs. 

If your product is made of one general material like glass, plastic, or cardboard, you can rinse it and toss it directly into its respective recycling bin. And contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to remove adhesive labels on recyclable products. This is usually done through a specialized heating process performed at many MRFs.

In regards to plastic, it is always better to recycle a larger plastic container as it is most likely to be recycled. However, Jezienicki still advises to stay away from plastic products in general as they are still huge pollutants. “The reality is that plastics can usually only be recycled 2-3 times before losing the qualities that make them usable, which means that transitioning to recycled plastic only removes plastic from landfills or polluting the earth by 1-2 cycles.”

What can’t be recycled

Small products can actually halt the recycling process and therefore aren’t widely accepted at recycling plants. This means anything under 2 inches, think: all travel and portable beauty products. Additionally, products with dark packaging also cannot be recycled as they can’t be identified by MRF machines. Also unrecyclable: products that contain mirrors, magnets, makeup brushes, sheet masks and packets, and squeezable tubes. 

As reference, here’s a quick guide of non-recyclables:

Hair Care: Shampoo caps, conditioner caps, hair gel tubes and caps, hair spray triggers, and hair paste caps

Skin Care: Lip balm tubes and caps, soap dispensers and tubes, body wash caps, lotion dispensers and caps

Cosmetics: Lipstick cases, lip gloss tubes, mascara tubes, eye shadow cases, bronzer cases, foundation packaging, powder cases, eyeliner cases, eyeliner pencils, eyeshadow tubes, concealer tubes, concealer sticks, and lip liner pencils 

Look into refillables

The ideal goal is to use less packaging, hence producing less waste. Many brands like Brazilian NATURA, French Diptyque, and Los Angeles-based Bathing Culture offer refillable beauty products. This means that you will be reusing the packaging several times over its intended lifetime, thus keeping it away from the landfill. “If we can’t reduce the amount of products we buy, reusing and recycling those products is the next best thing. Over 90 percent of an average product’s environmental impact comes from extracting and refining the raw materials from which it is made,” explains Herrera.