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Big Plastic (and Big Oil) have a five-decade lead a.....

Big Plastic (and Big Oil) have a five-decade lead and massive economies of scale that will take a little longer to match in terms of costs and simplicity. But working with the right partners and openness to shaking up the status quo is paying off for brands willing to put their principles and profits on equal footing.

Beauty and personal care brands know that their customers are looking for more than just a potion for great looks, fewer wrinkles and luxurious locks — they also want to immerse themselves with brands that align with their values. Beauty products are costly items used daily, so the desire to feel good about looking good is natural.

Recently, this mentality has extended past the ingredients and origin of the products themselves and has crept into accountability in packaging, as well. Having to toss out lots of plastic wrappers and “box fillers” to access the product container — which itself will eventually be thrown away — puts a damper on the “feel-good” enjoyment and delight these products deliver.

Cognizant of this reality, beauty brands have begun exploring options to create sustainability stories around their brands; and packaging is quickly becoming an essential component to that strategy. But as beauty brands dip their [well-pedicured] toes into these waters, they’re encountering unfamiliar challenges.

Some of these new complications revolve around finding and incorporating responsible plastic for packaging, which Beauty Independent touched on in arecent article. This piece covered a number of areas regarding the viability of post-consumer recycled plastic, bioplastics and ocean plastics for the beauty industry; highlighting risks such as increased costs, quality trade-offs and concerns about potential greenwashing by brands unaware of or confused by some of the nuances in this domain.

While choosing responsible plastic is a far cry from the silver bullet in creating sustainable packaging, utilizing these materials is a legitimate and positive step toward creating a healthier and more sustainable future. If the reasons “why not” overshadow the reasons “why,” we will continue to find ourselves in the endless loop of pollution that has plagued our planet for decades.

Infinity need not be the goal (yet)

Post-consumer recycled (commonly known as PCR) plastic is a great option. A common criticism of PCR plastic is that it eventually loses its capacity for repeated remanufacturing after multiple rounds of recycling — 100 percent PCR does have limits in terms of how many times it can be recycled before its integrity is compromised.

However, a true circular economy is still largely hypothetical; and combining PCR with some virgin plastic is far more common in practice. This results in superior products that still reduce our reliance on virgin plastic and new petroleum, albeit not yet 100 percent.

More importantly: Even if PCR only gets recycled five, six or seven times, that’s still a drastic reduction in the demand for virgin plastic while slashing the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and waterways. Any amount of recycling is a positive; and focusing on its limitations hinders the adoption and growth of recycled plastic as a preferred material.

A more nuanced story, but still worth telling

Ocean plastic and ocean-bound plastic are subsets of PCR and can be loaded terms with the potential to bring confusion and predisposed ideas to the conversation. But that is exactly why it has an important role in the conversations between consumers and the beauty industry.

Plastic waste is an unquestionable threat to oceans, waterways and shorelines. From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and litter-strewn shorelines to the daunting issue of microplastics, it’s in everyone’s best interest to properly manage plastic waste. Recycling as much of that plastic as possible is a double-win for the environment: Not only does it keep plastic from polluting, it also decreases the overall demand for virgin plastic derived from petroleum and the associated CO2 that accompanies its production.

Although the benefits are grandiose, brands — and their supply chain partners — must be truthful and transparent with the market when it comes to exactly where their recycled plastic comes from … and how much of the plastic content is recycled versus virgin.

For instance, extracting plastic directly from the ocean and recycling it into usable feedstock is possible and does happen; however, for a number of reasons, many brands are relying on ocean-bound plastic (defined as any mismanaged plastic waste within 50 km of the coast). Given this, brands must be accurate in their labeling and messaging without underselling the importance and benefits of using ocean-bound plastic in their products and packaging. Not only does ocean-bound plastic collection and recycling reduce litter and pollution, it also makes those neighborhoods and attractions safer and more attractive for residents and tourists.

Those taking on these collection and recycling activities aren’t doing it for marketing purposes — they’re entrepreneurs creating jobs and helping improve their communities and local environment, which should be applauded and celebrated. Telling these stories and highlighting the meaningful local impact of these activities can be a powerful complement to the environmental benefits, but it requires a more nuanced message from brands.

Not compromising on quality

Sunlight and seawater can take their toll on waste plastic, which could make recycled ocean plastic a poor fit for the strict standards of beauty product containers and packaging. However, with strict testing and quality-control standards in place, there are many use cases where it can achieve the standards required for the application.

Ocean-bound plastic can often hit the “sweet spot” brands are looking for. It still has a strong, compelling sustainability story but it is easier to acquire high-quality material in the volumes brands require.

This highlights the importance of working with a trusted partner for sourcing recycled ocean plastic that meets both the specific needs for manufacturing the final product and that fits with the story brands are trying to tell. For example, Oceanworks quality checks material before it’s sent to manufacturers and supports accurate labeling that correctly attributes its provenance and characteristics.

Using reputable suppliers that scrutinize their recycled feedstock and put it through rigorous quality testing, personal care brands such as Cocofloss,Caliray, Juice Beauty and Captain Blankenship have brought such products to market. These products showcase their brands’ commitment to corporate responsibility and sustainability, all without any performance or quality issues. It is great to see the industry celebrate and share the learnings of brands that have already successfully brought products using recycled ocean plastic to market.

Slightly more expensive, but not cost-prohibitive

Once upon a time, PCR was cheaper than virgin plastic and was used as a low quality filler. But the consumer-driven demand for sustainable products has flipped the script. Now with higher quality processing standards and limited supply of high-quality PCR, this sometimes means a higher price tag for manufacturers.

This again highlights the benefits of working with an experienced sourcing partner. Companies such as Oceanworks simplify this process for companies of all sizes, allowing them to incorporate recycled PCR, ocean-bound and ocean plastic material into their manufacturing process as easily and inexpensively as possible.

For example, Roberts Beauty has partnered with Oceanworks to create a turnkey set of designs including clear or opaque lipstick tubes as well as brik stiks, bottles, pump closures, compacts, and other common containers all made from ocean plastic. These are responsible solutions for beauty brands looking to quickly up their sustainability game.

Big Plastic (and Big Oil) have a five-decade lead and massive economies of scale that will take a little longer to match in terms of costs and simplicity. But working with the right partners and openness to shaking up the status quo is paying off for brands willing to go the extra mile and willing to put their principles and profits on equal footing.

Change is never easy, but it’s worth it

Working with recycled plastic is a departure from the norm, and all changes are challenging — particularly when blazing a new trail. But the benefits and rewards of incorporating recycled plastic into the manufacturing process are great, as well.

Luckily, this journey doesn’t have to be so daunting — thanks to the groundbreaking work of brands that have already taken steps to include recycled plastic and trusted partners that can help beauty brands of all shapes and sizes navigate these unfamiliar waters. It’s the right thing to do for the business and the planet.

For sustainability leaders, perfection can’t be the enemy of good. 100 percent PCR may not yet be a viable option for every brand and use case. But almost every application in the beauty industry can include a mix of PCR and virgin resin in their processes to at least begin their responsible plastics journey. Small steps made constantly can have a huge impact at scale

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