This article is a part of CNN Underscored’s Earth Week, a weeklong focus on our planet and ways to celebrate and preserve it. We’ll be featuring tips on how to live more sustainably, products to help you spend more time in nature and exclusive deals all week, so check in every morning to see what’s new, and be sure to subscribe to the CNN Underscored newsletter to see it all.
It’s no secret that the beauty industry has an ugly waste problem — which is why so many brands new and old have made a point to opt for more sustainable formulations and packaging — and a portion of the responsibility ultimately ends up falling on the consumer. Unfortunately, most packaging, even if it claims to be recyclable, doesn’t end up reincarnating as another pot of moisturizer or bottle of shampoo, but ends up in landfills and polluting the environment.
According to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 35 million tons of US plastic waste is generated and only 8.7% of that is recycled (around 3 million tons). A large portion of this negative environmental impact comes from single-use plastics, which encompass most beauty packaging.
But we’re not totally doomed — many beauty brands are taking responsibility and implementing postconsumer recycling programs and opportunities for shoppers to refill products, reducing the amount of garbage that goes into landfills.
TerraCycle, a recycling platform that partners with companies to help properly reuse pre- and postconsumer waste, has established recycling programs with over 140 brands across beauty, food, apparel and more. For cosmetics, most of these programs are free and consist of mailing your empty beauty bottles, tubs and tubes — and even the notoriously tricky bits to recycle like aerosols, pumps and flexible plastic — with a prepaid shipping label to TerraCycle, which will then clean and sort the empties to be recycled into raw materials that can be used for future products. Bliss, Glow Recipe and Farmacy are just a few of the cosmetic companies that work with TerraCycle. Retailers like Nordstrom and Credo Beauty also work with the company to recycle beauty products, even if they weren’t originally purchased from them. Details may vary for each brand’s partnership, so check TerraCycle’s website for the specific guidelines. Several brands going above and beyond in their partnerships are highlighted in our roundup below too.
Another way to reduce your environmental impact is by buying in bulk and refilling your products. Instead of smaller, single-use packaging that has a shorter life span from shelf to garbage bin, shopping products that have refills available extend the functionality of the packaging. Oftentimes, recycling and refilling work in tandem, with refill containers coming in recyclable plastic, aluminum or glass.
While there’s no perfect solution — the best for the environment is less production and consumption, after all — supporting brands making genuine efforts to minimize our collective environmental footprint is a good place to start. From luxury labels to indie brands to drugstore favorites, all levels of the beauty space are looking to make environmentally responsible changes by making recycling and refilling products more accessible to consumers. Ahead, hear from brand leaders spearheading these efforts and check out 13 brands that are making it easier to be less wasteful.
“Recycling can be confusing, which causes hurdles for the consumer,” Farmacy CEO Mina Chae says. “Our goal is to take the guesswork out for them.” The farm-to-face skin care brand provides a guide for how to recycle each of its products, some of which can be recycled directly through municipal systems, while others can be sent to TerraCycle with a prepaid label provided by Farmacy.
This year, Farmacy aims to have 100% waste-free packaging, meaning that it’s made from completely recycled materials that can then be recycled again. “The most recent launch, 10% Waterless Vitamin C Serum, was able to be made fully recyclable by using mono-material polypropylene (PP), which means that it’s not made from mixed materials and can easily be recycled as soon as the product is empty,” Chase says.
This beauty brand by Danish-born makeup artist Kirsten Kjaer Weis joins a minimalist sensibility with sustainable standards. Shoppers can choose between two refillable case options for products including foundation, blush, and eye shadow — the Iconic Edition is an infinitely refillable metallic case, while the Red Edition is made from refillable, recyclable and compostable paper that looks like leather.
A leader in prestige beauty committed to preserving the planet’s well-being, Noble Panacea follows 12 pillars of green chemistry, and among these, plastic-free packaging and recyclable daily doses create a backbone. “Sir Fraser [the brand’s founder] has spent his entire career dedicated to green chemistry, and skin care is a beautiful industry where you can get this technology to clients every day,” Noble Panacea CEO Celine Talabaza says. “To respect the scope of his work, we knew that if we launched a brand it had to be sustainable.”
Also available at Nordstrom, its products come in a unique packaging system centered around a starch-based case that holds 30 daily doses, each of which are made from FSC-certified paper and are 100% recyclable through Noble Panacea’s partnership with TerraCycle. “My team is focusing on the design and making sure that we are innovative and sustainable while remaining luxurious,” Talabaza says.
To streamline the process, the brand provides an envelope to store the empty doses in until you’re ready to mail them back to Noble Panacea. It takes care of the postage cost and the trouble of recycling the materials, then you can refill your reusable case with another set of 30 daily doses for a seamless and sustainable experience.
With the goal to “create clean makeup, from start to finish,” Ilia makes good on its promise by helping shoppers recycle their empties. Partnering with Pact Collective, you can mail back up to 10 empty beauty containers per month by filling out a form and printing a prepaid shipping label. Ilia is committed to cleaning up the beauty industry at large, so you can even mail in non-Ilia empties too.
Kiehl’s has a rewards program where you can rack up points by bringing Kiehl’s empties back to its stores for recycling. Each used container is worth 10 points, and you can redeem your points for rewards like products, services and more.
Several of the cult-favorite brand’s hero body and hair care products are also available in 1-liter refill pouches to help prolong the life span of its standard bottles.
Susanne Kaufmann’s nature-powered beauty line, available at Bloomingdale’s, is kind to the skin and planet. Last year, it launched 100% recyclable refill bottles for three of its bestselling cleansing products: the Cleansing Gel, Shower/Shampoo and Hand Soap. “Each recyclable refill not only helps reduce waste to landfill but also cuts carbon emissions by 69%,” founder Susanne Kaufmann says. “Our recyclable refills help the demand of conscious consumers while sharing the responsibility to protect our planet.”
Hairstory is cutting back on waste by recalculating the amount of product you actually need for your hair. According to the brand, you don’t need conditioner after cleansing with its New Wash, so you’ll be eliminating the packaging and footprint of an additional product. Plus, the New Wash is available in three different sized pouches and as part of Hairstory’s Refill Club. Through the Club, customers can choose the size of the New Wash refills, how frequently they receive them, a reusable full-size container and travel size, so your routine is always on hand. The refill pouches themselves are made from plastic that can be recycled at home.
A French makeup brand that brings all of the allure of Parisian beauty to eco-friendly practices, La Bouche Rouge utilizes 100% refillable, recyclable and plastic-free packaging. Its luxe leather lipstick and compact cases are made from upcycled leather from Les Tanneries du Puy, and the refills themselves are encased in recyclable paper and metal.
It’s no secret that Lush’s fragrant, candy-colored bath products make sudsing up more fun, and luckily they come guilt-free. The brand’s signature black pots are made from 100% postconsumer recycled plastic and can be reused and recycled at home or returned to a Lush store for recycling. If you bring back five empty pots to a Lush location, you even get a free face mask. We love that the fan-favorite bath bombs come package-free too.
MAC Cosmetics’ Back 2 MAC program rewards customers who return six empty MAC products with a free tube of lipstick. Those who are a MAC Lover loyalist can choose between a lipstick, lip gloss or small eye shadow. You can either return your qualifying empties to a participating store or fill out the form online and mail them back.
A vegan, small-batch personal care brand with big ideas, Meow Meow Tweet’s bulk store allows shoppers to buy deodorant, face cleanser, hand and body wash and more in larger sizes that can then be mailed back to the brand when empty. Meow Meow Tweet will then sterilize and reuse the containers, keeping waste out of the environment.
This eco-friendly skin, bath and hair care company has a circular refill program where you alert them when it’s almost time for a refill, they send you a new bottle of product and you mail back your empty one for them to sanitize, refill and sell like new. Plaine Products also uses aluminum bottles so they can be recycled over and over again.
Zoya is currently running its annual Earth Month Nail Polish Exchange in which shoppers receive a $5 credit for each new bottle of Zoya nail polish purchased (with a minimum order of six polishes). By participating, you can either mail back old, unwanted nail polish for the brand to dispose of according to environmental guidelines or donate them locally.