How to Recycle Your Used Beauty Products (So They Actually Stay Out of the Landfill)

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You may have heard some of the staggering statistics around the amount of waste generated by the beauty industry. (For example, Euromonitor International reported that nearly 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were used for beauty and personal care products in the U.S. alone—and that was 2018). Which prompts the question: how do we properly recycle beauty products?

A disappointing reality is that “only a small fraction of plastics in the U.S. are actually getting recycled,” says Danielle Jezienicki, the vice president of sustainability for Grove Collaborative. “Things that are more likely to be recycled are larger bottles and containers that aren’t as commonly used in the cosmetics industry,” she adds.

The good news is that the beauty industry is starting to think about sustainable packaging in a more meaningful way (though, to be clear, we still have a long way to go).

Leaders like Unilever (which owns Dove, Suave and Simple) and L'Oréal (parent company to Kiehl’s, Maybelline and Garnier) have both pledged to make 100 percent of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, refillable, or compostable by 2025; Procter & Gamble (who owns Olay, Pantene and Secret) says 90 percent of its packaging will be recyclable or reusable by 2025 and 100 percent by 2030.

Alas, sustainability is a team effort. We, as individual consumers, must work together to reduce waste in the beauty industry—and beyond. It sounds like a lofty goal, but a few small steps can make a big difference over time. Let’s start with some easy ways to recycle smarter.

Meet the Experts

  • Jeremy Walters is a sustainability ambassador and the external communications manager at Republic Services, a recycling and waste service provider based in Henderson, Nevada. Walters holds a degree in environmental studies from the University of Nevada Las Vegas and a solar and renewable energy minor.
  • Danielle Jezienicki is the vice president of sustainability at Grove Collaborative, a company that specializes in sustainable and natural household and personal care products. Jezienicki holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management.

For Starters, What Beauty Products Can Actually Be Recycled?

Many brands have started to think beyond plastic. “I am encouraged to see more brands transition to using glass and metal, which are much more likely to be recycled, and are infinitely recyclable, as they don’t degrade with each go around like plastic does,” says Jezienicki. “And if they don’t get recycled, they are inert, so, at the very least, they don’t degrade into harmful microplastics.” Here are some other recyclable materials to prioritize when shopping.

  • Metal: According to Walters, metal is the best option because cans and containers are generally accepted in curbside recycling programs.
  • Glass: This is a highly recyclable material, but not always accepted, so check with your local waste management provider. When recycled, it can be turned into fiberglass, artificial turf, countertops and new vessels, says Walters. Something else to keep in mind is that though glass can be recycled, it can be a lot heavier and thus create more emissions in transport.
  • Large plastics labeled 1 or 2: If the container has a 1 or 2 in a mobius strip (that trifecta of arrows in the shape of a triangle) at the bottom your municipal recycler will probably take it. However, size matters. Walters says the container must be bigger than a credit card.

How to Recycle Beauty Products

The number one thing you need to do (besides putting the container in the recycling bin), is rinse, rinse, rinse. 

If you don’t rinse out the product residue, you risk contaminating other things on the recycling conveyor belt line, like paper and cardboard, which gets them sent to the landfill. Don’t forget to remove any adhesives and stickers.

"It’s recommended to give your beauty and skincare containers a quick rinse, tap out any excess water until no more than a teaspoon remains, and then place them in your curbside bin,” Walters says. This is the most effective way to recycle these items properly.

What Do Those Recycling Triangles Actually Mean?

Newsflash: those little triangles are deceptive. They do not, in fact, indicate recyclability, but rather the type of plastic that’s used...and not all of them are actually recyclable (if at all).

The main numbers you want to look out for in terms of reusability are 1, 2 and 5. “If the loop has a number 1 or 2 on it, the item can be picked up through most curbside recycling programs,” shares Jezienicki. “Number 5 is collected in some areas, but you’ll need to check your local municipality to see what can be put in your bins. (You can find this information on your town or city's official website or on sites like Earth 911, which lists guides and the recycling locations nearest to you.)

Walters breaks down what each number represents:

  • #1: PET or PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate) plastics is accepted by most curbside programs if emptied and rinsed.
  • #2: HDPE (high-density polyethylene) is versatile and commonly used in packaging. Also widely accepted but sometimes waste management will only take containers with necks. Walters advises checking with your provider to confirm.
  • #3: PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl) are tough plastics usually found in industrial products. They are rarely recycled.
  • #4: LDPE (low-density polyethylene) is a flexible plastic but not usually recycled. However, Walters notes that some regions are starting to accept it.  
  • #5: PP (polypropylene) is a plastic with a high melting point, often chosen for containers that hold hot liquid. PP is gradually becoming more accepted by recyclers if all residue has been cleaned out.
  • #6: PS (polystyrene) usually appears as foam and cannot be recycled in that state.
  • #7: Miscellaneous; this covers plastics that don’t fit into the categories above and are not usually recycled.

What Can’t Be Recycled

In addition to the guide above, there are a few other things to keep in mind. First, mixed materials cannot be traditionally recycled (more on this later). Products that contain mirrors, magnets, pumps, applicators and makeup brushes cannot be recycled (think: compacts, lotion pumps, lip balm tubes and caps, lipstick cases and concealer sticks).

Additionally, Walters explains that flexible plastics (aka, any beauty/fashion packaging that has had a mobius strip on the plastic bag and says “recyclable!”) are a huge problem for recycling streams.

“They can wrap and tangle around sorting equipment at recycling facilities, which can cause major delays and/or damage to the equipment,” he says. “Flexible plastics require special handling to be recycled and should never be placed in your curbside recycling bin. A handy trick you can use if you’re unsure whether a plastic item is too flimsy to be recycled curbside is the “Poke Test.” As in, if you can poke your finger through the plastic, it’s too flimsy and should not go in your curbside bin.”

When it comes to what’s recyclable or not, size also matters. “Anything under two inches—think sprayers, caps, droppers and pumps—are often not recyclable,” explains Priscilla Tsai, the founder of Cocokind. “Sorting happens on a conveyor belt, and items that can be recycled are typically pulled out, and smaller parts such as pumps or caps can literally fall through the cracks, so they are unlikely to be recycled on their own—especially when the plastic type is not known,” adds Jezienicki.

So, when you’ve finished that bottle of serum or cleanser, disassemble it into the parts that can be recycled (i.e., the plastic bottle or glass container itself) and the parts that need to be thrown away (the dropper cap or spray top).

“The exception is when the caps are made out of the same recyclable material as the rest of the packaging,” Tsai adds. (FYI: This should be noted on the packaging itself or on the brand’s website.) “For example, the caps and tubes for our skincare sticks are made from the same material, so they can be recycled as one item.”

Other non-recyclable materials include makeup brushes and products that have high alcohol content (nail polish and polish remover), which the EPA considers to be household hazardous waste.

“If you’re not sure about whether or not something is recyclable, or if something is really dirty, contaminated or flammable, I would say put it in the landfill bin to be safe,” advises Jezienicki. Because if the product turns out to be unacceptable at the recycling facility, it can back up the entire process (which we’re told is a common issue) and end up in waste anyway.

Is There Anything Else I Need to Know About Recycling My Beauty Products?

“When you’re unsure whether something should be recycled, it’s best to err on the side of caution and place the item in the waste bin,” Walters says. “When in doubt, throw it out. Alternatively, you could take your recycling knowledge one step further and adopt this mantra: ‘When in doubt, find out.’ He recommends as a reliable resource.

We know this is a LOT of information being thrown your way, but before you get too overwhelmed, know this: every little bit helps. Start by making one small change at a time to avoid feeling discouraged.

As Tiila Abbitt, the former CEO and founder of the now-shuttered ATHR Beauty, a sustainable makeup company that launched the first zero-waste eye shadow palette, told us previously: “This isn’t about perfection. We don’t need a few people creating a zero-waste lifestyle perfectly. We need millions of people trying their best, thinking more about their own footprint and making better choices with the goods they are purchasing, however imperfectly, to make a difference.”

And on that note, here are some ways you can make your beauty routine more sustainable.

1. Opt for refillable options wherever possible.

Makeup brands like Kjaer Weiss have refillable packaging so most of the line—which includes cream blush, eyeshadow and bronzer—is housed in sturdy (and sleek) metal that can be refilled over and over again. Other notable brands with refillable options include by Humankind, which offers refills on shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, hand sanitizer and mouthwash, and Oui the People, whose sleek rose gold razor is initially an investment at 75 dollars, but offers a 10-pack of blade refills for 11 bucks thereafter.

2. Swap out single-use wipes and cotton rounds.

Try reusable rounds and muslin cloths that you can easily toss in with your laundry instead of creating more waste. (We love these organic bamboo rounds from Jenny Pantinkin because they feel super soft against our skin and are anti-microbial.)

3. Buy fewer products.

We know how tempting it is to want to try every new buzzy product on Instagram (been there, bought that), but we’re making a concerted effort to only buy products we need and only buy them once they’re finished.

4. Switch to bar soaps.

It seems like these days, there are now bars for everything—from shampoo to conditioner to shaving cream and even body moisturizer. Bars are great because they use less packaging and offer more product that’s not diluted with water.

5. Look into recycling programs.

Nordstrom has an ongoing partnership with TerraCycle called BeautyCycle, which allows customers to bring their used products into any Nordstrom store. Nordstrom then sends your empties to TerraCycle, where they are cleaned and separated into metals, glass and plastics, before being recycled or repurposed into new materials.

Some other programs to check out are Back to MAC, which gives customers a free MAC lipstick for every six makeup containers returned, and Lush’s recycling program, which rewards customers with a dollar towards their next purchase for every returned pot. (Returned pots are sent back to their suppliers in Canada, where they regrind and remold the pots again and again.) And remember those smaller-than-a-credit-card plastics destined for the trash? Credo Beauty will take them through its Pact Collective recycling program, where items are sorted by hand and sold to buyers.

Last but not least, Terracycle also has a longstanding program with Garnier that allows you to ship your used personal care and beauty products (for free!). Once received, these products are recycled and remade into other products—or in some cases, used to build eco-friendly playgrounds and gardens across the U.S.

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