The Future of Zero Waste Beauty: Sustainable Cosmetic Ingredients & Eco Packaging
Updated: Jul 17
It’s no secret that the overconsumption of the earth’s resources (along with the amount of waste produced) is having a harmful impact on our planet. The zero waste movement - which seeks to redesign resource lifecycles - is gaining momentum, as companies of all shapes and sizes strategize to eliminate waste across their supply chains in order to reduce environmental impact.
Whilst there’s still so much to be done, there are some very inspiring zero waste initiatives in the beauty and personal care space right now. Here, we highlight some of the most inspirational examples of creative reuse and wider sustainability efforts in the beauty & personal care space, which ultimately focus on reducing consumption of new resources; identify waste as a valuable resource; and support the transition from a linear take-make-dispose system to a circular one.
We also provide insight into the future of zero waste beauty - taking a particular look at cosmetic ingredients, formulations and eco packaging examples.
Let's dive in...
Solid formulations: From shampoo bars to solid cleansers
81% of Spanish consumers say that the environmental impact of a product’s packaging affects their purchasing decisions - and 77% of German consumers and 68% of UK consumers feel the same(1). Solid formulations have become a popular option for brands looking to wave goodbye to packaging altogether and reduce carbon footprint. Lush reports that one lorry full of solid shampoo bars holds roughly the same number of washes as fifteen lorries filled with liquid shampoo(2). In addition to cutting the wrap, Lush explains that these solid formats are a great way to cut down on water.
Upcycled cosmetic ingredients
30% of the food produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted somewhere along the food supply chain(3). Another source of food wastage comes from the 20% or more of produce that gets thrown away because of how it looks(4). In addition to wasting perfectly good produce, the other major issue is that when food is sent to landfill, it rots and becomes a significant source of methane – a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
Eco-conscious indie brands such as LOLI Beauty, BYBI and UpCircle (to name a few) are taking action in actively diverting leftovers from landfill by using upcycled ingredients. These ingredients are made from nutrient-rich plant-based leftovers – including food waste.
By harnessing the powerful micronutrients and vitamins already present within by-products, brands can use this waste resourcefully, without compromising on product quality or efficacy. Full Circle’s range of upcycled ingredients are made entirely from plant-based leftovers; 1kg of Blueberry NECTA® - a natural active oil for blue light defence - contains 800,000 upcycled berries diverted from juicing industry waste. The remaining seedcake is upcycled once again to create Blueberry CRUSH™ skincare & body care exfoliators.
“The linear ‘Take-Make-Dispose’ system which depletes natural resources and generates waste, is deeply flawed and can be productively replaced by a restorative model in which waste does not exist as such but is only food for the next cycle” - Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Reducing product waste
In addition to putting in place reasonable shelf lives to help reduce product wastage, tools such as UpCircle’s Scrub Tube Squeezer and Every Drop® Beauty Spatula help customers to use up every drop of product. New ‘booster’ products have entered the market in recent years, which have been designed to revive products in order to reduce waste and minimise consumption. The Moon Mousse™ Magic Makeup Repair Kit is an all-natural formula to repair broken and shattered makeup which would typically go straight in the bin. Gotha Cosmetics also developed the first ever ‘Mascara Life Extender’ and colour booster concept; designed to revive any mascara by giving it a second chance, this unique concept allows the consumer to simply add a few drops to a dry, crumbling, greyish mascara to immediately intensify shine and colour.
The future of zero waste cosmetics - what’s next?
Although upcycled ingredients are gaining traction, this is really just the beginning of the movement towards zero waste beauty. As cosmetic ingredient manufacturers broaden their portfolios to cater for every formulator’s need, the industry will welcome products made entirely from by-products and leftovers, meaning no new resources will be created. Take BYBI’s Night Nutrition Protein Night Cream for example - a 5-star-rated formula that contains 70% upcycled ingredients.
There is also a possibility that formulations could become certified ‘upcycled’ in the future and could become just as commonplace and well-known as ‘organic.’ The Upcycled Food Association - a nonprofit trade association - are doing exactly that; by working alongside government, academic, industry and nonprofit partners, they have formally defined the term “upcycled food.” Using this definition, the UFA aims to launch an upcycled certification program in October 2020, helping consumers identify upcycled foods in the grocery store, so they can opt for the more sustainable choice.
There is, however, more to be done around educating consumers on the topic of creative reuse and the terms associated with it, such as upcycling and repurposing. Google Trends data shows that US searches for “what is upcycling?” are up 250% versus the previous year and worldwide searches for ‘upcycled definition’ have risen by 70%(5), proving that there is growing awareness around the topic but still some confusion around what the term “upcycled” actually means.
Zero waste refill schemes
Did you know that over 95% of beauty packaging is thrown out after just one use? Or that just 14% of plastic makes it to a recycling centre?(6) To help tackle overconsumption of single-use packaging, brands such as Splosh and Beauty Kitchen are favouring reuse and refill schemes instead of solely relying on recycling efforts. Although the concept isn’t new, if refill designs were to be applied to all bottles in beauty and personal care (as well as home cleaning), packaging and transport savings alone would represent an 80–85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions(7).
Beauty Kitchen launched their ‘Return. Refill. Repeat’ initiative in early 2019; a scheme that enables customers to either return their Beauty Kitchen empties for free - which will then be washed and reused - or top up their ‘Bottle for Life’ at refill stations at participating stores.
“This means, instead of going to landfill, not being recycled or using up energy to recycle, we can kick-start the packaging lifecycle all over again in the most sustainable way possible" - Beauty Kitchen
BYBI also launched a circular recycling scheme (ReBYBI). Once the empty glass bottle(s) are sent back to BYBI, they’re fully sterilised in-house using industrial cosmetic sterilisation machinery and are reused over and over again.
Refill schemes don’t come without their challenges though. A shift in behaviour is required at the consumer level, but there are some noteworthy examples of brands using education to drive consumers to do their bit. Home essentials brand Splosh have implemented a ‘Bottle-ometer’ which lets customers keep track of how many bottles they’ve stopped going to waste, helping them to bridge the connection between their own consumption and the impacts on landfill. Every single Splosh bottle sold can be refilled using concentrated refill pouches, which means that customers can cut plastic waste by 90%. Customers can go one step further by returning their refill pouches to Splosh for free - which will be reprocessed and made into entirely new pouches, therefore cutting plastic waste by 100%. As a result, Splosh can control the material throughout its life.
Packaging in action: Eco-friendly packaging & materials
120bn units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry - most of which are not recyclable(8). Here, we highlight some of the most innovative packaging solutions that beauty brands are putting into practice.
Mycelium: Developed by Ecovative Design, Mushroom® Packaging is made from mycelium - the vegetative root structure of a mushroom. Ecovative work with regional farmers to source non-food agricultural waste which is ground, sorted, and cleaned before growing. Mycelium is then added to the mix and binds the agricultural waste together, almost like a glue. After a few days of growth, Mushroom® Products are ready to use. This high-performing eco packaging solution is lightweight, water resistant, entirely home compostable and will even add nutrition back into soil. Beauty and personal care brands utilising this innovative material include Haeckels, Seed and Wildsmith Skin.
Eco papers: In 2019, BYBI launched their grasspaper boxes and papers containing sun dried grass. The production of grasspaper uses up to 80% less energy than that of wood pulp, with dramatically reduced water requirements (less than 1 litre per ton vs. 3,000 litres per ton of wood pulp that’s used for paper). All in all, it saves up to 4,800 tons of CO2 emissions(9).
By Sarah London launched their 2019 Christmas Gift Sets with a tree-free crushed grape paper sleeve. Made from by-products of wine production, the organic grape residues are processed using EKOenergy, resulting in 20% lower CO2 emissions than standard papers(10).
Recycled packaging made from upcycled coffee cups: CupCycling™ by James Cropper is the world’s first recycling process dedicated to upcycling takeaway cups. James Cropper gives this post-consumer waste a second life, transforming it into papers and packaging including COLOURFORM™; a renewable, recyclable, moulded fibre packaging offering. Lush partnered with James Cropper to create a standalone COLOURFORM™ box that would hold a selection of bath bombs; the result is a fully recyclable container made from 100% post-consumer recycled coffee cups diverted from landfill.
Recovered ocean plastic: Danish company Gosh Cosmetics takes 40% of the plastic packaging for its DEXTREME foundations from ocean waste. The brand says that buying one foundation equates to removing at least 10 plastic bags from the seas(11). REN are also reinventing ocean plastic waste with their recycled bottles. The ocean plastic used in each bottle is collected by charities and organisations from oceans, beaches, rivers, lakes and waterways.
Zero waste soap packaging: Berlin-based product designer Jonna Breitenhuber has developed the SOAPBOTTLE - a zero waste liquid container made entirely from soap. The soap packaging has been developed to gradually dissolve over time and when finished, remnants can be used again; either as hand soap or processed into detergents. Although the SOAPBOTTLE is only a concept, it provides insight into what’s possible when it comes to 100% zero waste packaging that’s designed to disappear.
In 2019, product designer Mi Zhou unveiled Soapack; a line of sustainable shampoo packaging also made from soap - but with a luxury twist - that melts away after being used. Each Soapack is made from a vegetable oil-based soap that has been dyed with flowers, plants and other mineral pigments. The mixture is then transferred to moulds of assorted shapes. The bottles are then lined with beeswax to prevent the contents from dissolving when in contact with water.
The future of sustainable cosmetic packaging
In 2019, Haeckels unveiled their new-look packaging made from mycelium. A seed paper wrap encases the mycelium boxes, made from recycled paper pulp and mixed with wildflower seeds. Once finished, both the box and paper can be buried together; with the mycelium encouraging the seeds’ growth, the packaging is effectively a “seed bomb.”
This demonstrates what’s truly possible when it comes to packaging of the future; discarded materials that actually give something positive back to the earth instead of polluting it, adding nutrients as the material biodegrades. Dubbed ‘biocontribution,’ this innovation turns packaging waste into a positive thing.
“Biocontributing is the true way forward. Products that once we are finished with enter back into the circular economy of the earth’s biosphere; true harmony, nothing else is acceptable.” - @haeckels (Instagram)
Tapping into the ‘biorevolution,’ Poland-based Make Grow Lab are fusing science with design to create a fully circular production of local, sustainable materials and spread it around the world. They collaborate with brands in order to develop solutions that do not pollute the environment - but enrich it instead. Make Grow Lab explains that their project began with one question: “What if we could grow materials instead of making them and at the end of their cycle, use it as fertilizer which would then be used to continue the cycle of a biological production system?”
One approach to significantly reducing the amount (and weight) of packaging overall is to make the contents more concentrated; some of which can be diluted or ‘activated’ by customers at home. In a bid to tackle overuse of water within cosmetic formulations, Haeckels are set to launch a new natural body cleanser concept. Using concentrated capsules packed with natural ingredients, when mixed with water, the product transforms into a natural gel. Each capsule is said to contain the perfect amount for daily use. Better still - one bottle of capsules contains a years’ supply of body wash.
In an Instagram post, Haeckels says: “In the same way it is frowned upon to buy bottled water, what if one day it’s socially unacceptable to buy cosmetics as water-based products? [...] Why include water in a product when water is available in the customer’s bathroom?”
In addition to the sustainability credentials, concentrated formulas can be considered as more convenient, as the consumer can use a single capsule or pod whenever needed. Smol have created concentrated laundry capsules which, in their words, are “so concentrated [they are] ‘smol’ enough to post through your letterbox” and are replenished based on the number of weekly washes that the customer is likely to make.
Looking for more insights and inspiration? Download our 2020 Zero Waste Beauty Report here.
1. Edie (2018). In numbers: The growing consumer demand for sustainable packaging. Available at: https://www.edie.net/news/5/In-numbers--The-growing-consumer-demand-for-sustainable-packaging/ (Accessed: 01 June 2020)
2. Lush (n.d.). The mighty shampoo bar. Available at: https://uk.lush.com/article/mighty-shampoo-bar (Accessed: 01 June 2020)
3. Rezaei, M & Liu, B (2017). Food loss and waste in the food supply chain. (Accessed: 01 June 2020)
4. Free The Birds (n.d.). Food waste upcycling into beauty products. Available at: https://freethebirds.com/thoughts/post/food-waste-beauty-products/ (Accessed: 01 June 2020)
5. Data from Google Trends, April 2020
6. Beauty Kitchen (n.d.). Available at: https://beautykitchen.co.uk/pages/cradle-to-cradle (Accessed: 01 June 2020)
7. Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017). The new plastics economy: catalysing action
8. Zero Waste Week
9. BYBI.com (n.d.) Available at: https://bybi.com/pages/values-packaging (Accessed: 02 June 2020)
10. By Sarah London (2019). Available at: https://bysarahlondon.com/blogs/journal-mindful-living/why-theres-crushed-grapes-in-our-christmas-wrapping (Accessed: 02 June 2020)
11. GOSH (2019). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=147&v=hMpR_PUHRYI&feature=emb_title (Accessed: 02 June 2020)