In-store beauty recycling is going mainstream

Once available at a handful of beauty retailers, in-store recycling boxes are becoming commonplace. 

Sephora is the latest beauty retailer to adopt in-store beauty recycling, expanding its pilot program to 35 locations on July 18. It joins a wide range of brands and retailers that have added the feature in recent years, including other major retailers and a growing number of brands owned by Estée Lauder Companies and L’Oréal Group. But in a time of rising consumer wariness of greenwashing, brands are under pressure to provide transparency about where the products are going. 

“People started to reevaluate what they were using, how much they were using and where things were going,” said Mia Davis, vp of impact and sustainability at Credo Beauty and co-founder of the one-year-old nonprofit beauty recycling organization Pact Collective, Sephora’s partner for the recycling program. Sephora’s introduction of the in-store recycling bins across the U.S. and Canada is part of a watershed year for in-store recycling programs, according to Davis. 

Collection boxes by Pact can now be found in 220 beauty stores across North America, including Credo Beauty, Cos Bar, Beautycounter, Hudson’s Bay, Winners and a range of indie boutiques. Other brands and retailers adding in-store recycling in the U.S. in the past three years include Deciem and Nordstrom, via partnerships with recycling business TerraCycle, as well as Korres.

The boxes are popping up in stores at a time when consumers are becoming more aware that throwing beauty bottles in a municipal recycling bin often means they will be destined for incineration or landfill. In April 2021, Allure made the decision to stop calling plastic beauty packaging “recyclable,” due to the fact that beauty containers often don’t make the cut because of their size or materials. 

Victor Casale, co-founder of Pact Collective, learned this lesson when he helped launch MAC Cosmetics’ in-store recycling program back in 1990 as the brand’s chief chemist. Casale, who has since gone on to become the founder of refillable makeup brand MOB Beauty and co-founder of custom skin-care brand Pure Culture, said his research into recyclability over the years had led him to work on finding new solutions.

“Municipal sorting systems are automated. They have wide belts that run very fast, and all the big bottles and glass bottles and plastic bottles are the ones that get sorted the most. All the little ones just fall off the end … down into a container, and usually get burned or landfilled.” He learned this after calling municipal recycling facilities such as Recology in California. “I was really upset about that. I was pissed off,” he said, recounting a conversation he had with an employee when inquiring about what happens to beauty product containers. When she informed him of their disposal, “I said, ‘Why don’t you tell people that?’ She goes, ‘Well, if we tell people, they’re going to get upset and they’re just not going to do it,’” he said. 

Davis had a similar experience in her own research on the state of beauty product container recycling through standard facilities. 

“It was dismal. We knew it was going to be bad, but I was shocked at how very little virgin plastic is actually collected at material recovery facilities,” said Davis. 

Korres, which opened its first U.S. store in New York in May 2021, opted to install an in-store recycling lab in collaboration with plastics recycling program Precious Plastics. People can set up an appointment to see their containers turned into raw material in an in-store machine and receive a free gift for participating. 

Apart from MAC, early adopters for store recycling collection include L’Occitane, which first launched its program in 2014, Origins, which launched its program in 2009, and Kiehl’s, which launched one in 2009. The brands operate in partnership with TerraCycle, which works with a wide range of beauty brands and the country’s biggest conglomerates including Procter & Gamble. 

“Consumers are increasingly conscious of recycling and sustainability in the beauty space. They expect that we are doing our part to minimize waste and prioritizing the environment,” said Diana Marrone, vp of marketing at Kiehl’s U.S. The brand saw its annual collected package numbers peak at 1 million units in 2019. After a lull due to pandemic shutdowns in 2020, it rebounded to 701,000 in 2021.  

“Customers today are very savvy and informed,” said Marianna Fellmann, the head of group corporate communications for L’Occitane. “In reality, the concept of in-store recycling is a response to the increasing desire — and acceptance — of the consumer to [adopt] a new and positive purchasing model that may challenge convenience but offers unique environmental improvements.”

Younger consumers are especially driving demand for change. 

“The interest and appetite mainly comes from our Gen-Z customers, via our stores and customer service platforms. However, we are starting to recognize Gen X, specifically parents of our largest audience demographic, asking about and using the in-store recycling program,” said Jacquelyn Kankam, Deciem’s senior director for sustainability and social impact.

Beauty retailers have felt pressure to offer increasing transparency on where recycled products are headed as consumers become more aware of the concept of greenwashing. 

Prior to the launch of Pact Collective, Credo Beauty had also relied on TerraCycle. But when the retailer asked where the products were being recycled, the amount of information given was “none,” said Davis. 

“We want to be radically transparent about where it’s going to go,” she said.  

TerraCycle settled a lawsuit in 2021 over labeling transparency issues. Filed by The Last Beach Cleanup, the lawsuit alleged that recyclability claims on partners’ packaging were not accurate. For the settlement, TerraCycle agreed to pay the organization’s legal fees and set up a supply chain certification program. According to the agreement, TerraCycle said it would “maintain in written form in its records information and documentation supporting the validity of the recyclable representations made on its website and on the label of each product,” providing written confirmation that items were recycled. 

“We share the names of facilities with our contracted partners upon request. Our contracted partners also have the right to audit our processes,” said a spokesperson for TerraCycle in an email to Glossy, who stated that Bureau Veritas, a  testing, inspection and certification company, audited and certified its beauty recycling supply chain in North America and other countries. TerraCycle requires NDAs and non-compete agreements for companies auditing its recycling process to protect proprietary processes.

In Davis’ view, a nonprofit model is needed, when it comes to beauty container recycling, for several reasons. First, it’s what allowed Pact Collective to get Credo Beauty’s competitors on board. “We wanted to get tons of stakeholders from this industry together,” she said. “We felt that the minute that we made it a business, it would be a competitor.”

Davis and Casale are blunt about the current reality of beauty recycling. Right now, the products they’ve collected have not made it past Pact Collective’s sorting facility. The collective is waiting to amass a large enough volume that a processing facility will purchase the materials.

“We’re just getting big enough to have the volumes to be able to sell material. It’s crazy how much you have to have before anyone will talk to you,” said Davis. Pact Collective is currently in talks with recycling facilities including Eastman to take the products. 

In addition, the ultimate goal of Pact Collective is to work toward sustainable packaging solutions that do not involve plastic, including refillable and compostable options. 

“Our mission is to put this part of our program out of commission,” said Davis. “The reason it needs to be a nonprofit is that our goal is to put ourselves out of business. That’s not how businesses work.” 

[UPDATE 8/12/2022: Comments from TerraCycle added]

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