A primer on how to reduce plastic waste in your beauty shelf Advertisement

How to reduce plastic from your beauty shelf

Get on the eco-friendly beauty movement to save the earth

By Drishti Kapadia  May 21st, 2020

Bottles of shampoo, body and face wash, lotions… a quick glance at your bathroom shelf is all the proof you need to understand the plastic waste generated by the beauty industry. According to a 2018 study by Zero Waste Week (a UK-based global campaign that creates awareness about the environmental impact of waste generation), globally cosmetic companies produce 12,000 crore units of packaging every year, most of which is not recyclable. And considering that plastic can take more than 500 years to decompose naturally, this waste is going nowhere.

As our landfills reach capacity, a few beauty brands are working towards a solution for this devastating man-made problem. Haircare brand Kevin Murphy uses square bottles because they require 40 per cent less plastic to create (compared to regular round ones), and eliminates the need for extra packing material while shipping. Aveda and Love Beauty & Planet are launching new ranges in post-consumer resin aka recycled plastic bottles. Even big personal care companies are invested in reducing their environmental impact; Procter & Gamble is testing paper packaging for their popular deodorants Secret and Old Spice.

While brands are responsible for making radical changes, it’s important we do our bit as well. Here’s what you need to look out for the next time you’re restocking your beauty shelf:


The first step towards reducing your plastic waste is to check if your product can be recycled. You’ll always find the Möbius loop on most bottles; it stands for recyclable material. On plastic the symbol will be accompanied by a number, which indicates the type of resin used—from the seven variations, numbers one, two, four, and five are ideal for recycling. While reusable options can only be recycled up to three times, they do ultimately reduce the need for new plastic. But the beauty biz still has a long way to go when it comes to transparency and awareness about their recycling efforts. Cosmetic chemist duo Victoria Fu and Gloria Wu, who regularly bust skincare myths on their Instagram account (@chemistconfessions) said, “The green dot on packaging shows that the company has made a financial contribution to a packaging recovery organisation–not that the container is biodegradable.”

Even biodegradable plastic is not the dream solution it’s often pitched as. It needs specific conditions, like temperatures above 50 degrees celsius coupled with the right balance of air, moisture and microorganisms to break down. Vishal Bhandari, founder of ayurvedic beauty brand SoulTree that uses 100 per cent biodegradable packaging says, “Even in industrial composting units, they take 90 to 180 days to decompose. These plastics will not detoriate in landfills, they’ll lie there adding to the waste.”


India generates 62 million tonnes of waste every year, and it takes a massive amount of time and resources to segregate this. To make recycling efficient, check your recycling unit’s rules. Glass jars, metal lids, certain plastics and cardboard packaging are widely accepted for reprocessing, while plastic pumps, perfume tubes and items made of a combination of materials (like eyeshadow palettes and lipstick tubes) pose a recycling challenge and need to be separated from the other waste. Sign up with EcoWise (Ecowise.net.in.), a waste management facility that offers pick-up services for recyclables and beauty empties in 15 cities.


An Instagram trend started by beauty industry watchdog Estée Laundry, #ShopMyStash follows a simple rule to pare down the waste generated by half-used products: ‘Use less. Buy less, and use up what you already own by shopping from your own beauty stash.’ Several other beauty bloggers like Serein Wu and Kelly Gooch have started similar trending hashtags like #NoBuy and #LowBuy that ask you to re-evaluate needs the next time you want to buy your seventh nude lipstick.


 “Our systems aren’t designed to handle the single-use plastic waste [read: bubble wrap] generated from online orders,” explains Pawan Maheshwari, founder of the Bengaluru-based Packmile, a sustainable packaging design company that works with e-commerce powerhouses, like Amazon. You’ll create less waste by combining your list of things, placing the order together and calling the company’s customer care to let them know you’d like minimum packaging. Personal care brand Earth Rhythm happily complies to this and even sells its soap bars without the outer tin box.


Shop brands that are putting in the effort to be eco-friendly. Taking a cue from MAC Cosmetics’ popular ‘Back to MAC’ initiative, Indian brands have created incentive programmes to promote recycling. “With our Recycle and Reward program, customers can send back five full-size empties to earn a discount [on their next purchase],” says Juicy Chemistry’s founder Megha Asher. Mehul Manjeshwar, the marketing head of zero-waste personal care brand Bare Necessities, believes product refills allow brands to have warmer relationships with clients. “Our replenishing stations allow customers to visit us and refill their own glass jars with their favourite product. They can even choose to purchase the exact quantity they require.” Even luxury brands are exploring the idea of refilling lipsticks with Guerlain’s Rouge G lip colours leading the way.



Eco-friendly packaging costs 50 per cent more than plastic which is a strong deterrent for brands. “Packaging manufacturers often have little incentive to innovate because brands place smaller orders initially,” says Mikail Pardiwala, the founder of eco-friendly lifestyle brand TreeWear. Manjeshwar, says, “When more people consider reusing, reducing and recycling [their plastic waste], it’ll lead to more innovation.” The good news is that there are a few trendsetters who are ahead of the curve. Packmile creates 100 per cent biodegradable and recyclable packaging products and its patented BHive, a paper bubble wrap and paper tapes that are used by beauty brands like SoulTree and Vilvah. It’s also exploring packaging solutions with materials like bamboo and aluminium. Bhandari adds, “Corn, potato starch, bagasse and rice bran will also be game-changers in the future.”

All these inventions will amount to nothing if we don’t take action. It’s time to use our privilege as a customer and ask brands for greener packaging, and better recycling strategies. And if you don’t see a change, make a few sustainable switches yourself.