The theory behind bioplastics is simple: if we could make plastics from kinder chemicals to start with, they’d break down more quickly and easily when we got rid of them. Actions that seem to help the planet in obvious ways have major drawbacks and unfortunately, environmental issues are never quite so simple.
Growing crops to make bioplastics comes with the usual environmental impacts of intensive agriculture, including greenhouse emissions from the petroleum needed to fuel farm machinery, and water pollution caused by runoff from land where fertilizers are used in industrial quantities. In some cases, these indirect impacts from “growing” bioplastics are greater than if we simply made plastics from petroleum in the first place. Not to mention land that could be used to grow food for the world is being used to “grow plastic” instead, causing food instability for those in third world countries who stand to suffer the most.
Whilst bioplastics such as sugarcane plastic is sustainable, it really doesn’t matter what the plastic started off from, whether from crops or petrochemicals, plasticisers still have to be used & the end material is something which doesn’t easily biodegrade – especially if it’s a plastic that’s destined to be shelf stable & containing liquids… as in skincare!
Plastic materials that at end of life can completely break down naturally and disappear harmlessly may sound like the ideal answer. However, the reality is not so simple. If you make a habit of reading plastic packaging, especially supermarket carrier bags, you might have noticed some of them making environmentally friendly statements appearing on them. Biodegradable plastics contain additives that cause them to decay more rapidly in the presence of light, oxygen & heat.
Biodegradable packaging may sound great but it’s not without its own set of problems. These plastics don’t always break down into harmless substances: sometimes they leave behind a toxic residue. And that’s assuming it breaks down at all. In 2014, for example, some members of the European Parliament tried hard to bring about a complete ban on biodegradable plastics in the EU, with growing doubts over their environmental benefits.
Although that proposal was blocked, it led to more detailed studies of biodegradable plastics, apparently confirming that they can’t be effectively composted or anaerobically digested and don’t usually break down in landfills. In the oceans, the water is usually too cold to break down biodegradable plastics, so they either float forever on the surface (just like conventional plastics) or, if they do break down, produce tiny plastic fragments that are harmful to marine life. Oh, and one last point, biodegradable plastics can not be recycled.
One neat solution to our ever-mounting (again, no pun intended) problem of waste plastic, is to take unwanted plastic… and reform it into another product, keeping waste out of a landfill and turning it into new things is great. But there’s a huge white elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge, especially when it comes to skincare – but we aren’t afraid to look that elephant square in the eyes and call it by its name.
Whilst you may think of plastic as being non-porous (i.e., not allowing liquid or air to pass through it), this isn’t the case for all plastics. Different plastics have different properties which leads to the need for creating multi-layer, multi-type, plastic tubes for skincare products, which makes recycling those tubes nigh on impossible – even though the packaging can say it’s recyclable, no municipal authority like your local council, will recycle it.
When it comes to formulating skincare products, packaging plays a huge part of the formulation, which you can read more about in our Science in Skincare blog post: ‘Skincare Packaging Matters’.
You want something that is easy to use, cost effective but most importantly – protects the formulation inside from the external environment.
We took it upon ourselves to develop our skincare packaging with the help of a top tier European plastics supplier – a high-density opaque tube to use across our skincare range, which not only is far easier to recycle but makes sure our complex formulas stay as potent and effective as possible.
How do you find out if your skincare packaging is recyclable?
Why is life never simple? If you’re keen on helping the planet, complications like this sound completely exasperating. But don’t let that put you off. As many environmental campaigners point out, there are some very simple solutions to the plastics problem that everyone can bear in mind to make a real difference. Remember the saying “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle“
When it comes to recycling plastic, it is grouped in seven categories:
If you look at the back of the skincare packaging, on there, somewhere you should see a little recycling symbol with a number in it. If it is a “7”, even though it is recyclable, you will not be able to recycle it by placing it in your recycling bin – and most skincare packaging are either mixed plastics or simply can not be recycled at all and doomed to end up in landfill.
We all have to do what we can to combat the ever-growing mountain of waste plastic polluting our environment. While some skincare companies have even switched over to bioplastics, they didn’t acknowledge the white elephant in the room – it doesn’t matter whether the plastic originated from sugarcane or petrochemicals, the packaging should be recyclable!
One day, we may have perfect plastics that break down when required. Until then, let’s be smarter about how we use plastics and how we get rid of them when we’ve finished with them.
The science in skincare is our ongoing series helping consumers better understand the science in skincare. We translate the science into a format that is much easier to read, bust the myths and give you a clear, transparent and honest assessment so you can make an informed choice of what goes onto your skin.
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