This Is Plastics: Circular Beauty I: ‘Sustainable Beauty’ Needs Plastics to Succeed


Circular Beauty I: ‘Sustainable Beauty’ Needs Plastics to Succeed

Learn how plastics are essential to promoting and achieving sustainability goals in the beauty industry.


Since the 1970s, the beauty industry has been on a quest to become more environmentally friendly, seeking to answer activist, investor and consumer calls for widespread sustainability commitments in the era of climate positivity. Call it ‘Clean Beauty,’ ‘Green Beauty’ or ‘Blue Beauty’—all factions within the ‘Sustainable Beauty’ movement with related but distinct aims—the message is the same: the beauty industry needs to adapt and innovate to improve its environmental footprint. The material for the job? Plastic.

Past beauty trends have liberated the industry from animal testing and prompted a shift towards more natural, chemical-free compounds. In the last decade, however, critics’ focus has centered on packaging, which comprises over 60 percent of the personal care products market. However, calls to unequivocally eliminate plastic in the beauty industry don’t just lack nuance—they’re also pushing companies to potentially cause more harm than good by switching to oft-touted alternatives, like paper and glass, that are less environmentally beneficial than plastics. If Sustainable Beauty wants to succeed while continuing to meet consumer demand, it’s going to need plastics to do so.

Substituting plastics with alternatives has environmental consequences

In recent years, beauty brands have begun embracing alternative materials to signal their commitment to sustainability—but this trend doesn’t always lead to better environmental outcomes. Market research indicates a ‘glassification’ effect within the cosmetics industry, with analysts predicting a 4.4 percent increase in segment value through 2025, as glass packaging demand increases. While plastics critics and green activists may view this trend as a positive, it could actually cause more environmental harm.

Research from the Imperial College of London found that if all the world’s plastic bottles were replaced with glass, the resulting CO2 emissions would be equivalent to the amount produced by about 22 coal-fired power plants—more than is produced by the entire continent of Australia. Additionally, plastics’ lightweight nature helps minimize associated transportation emissions when compared to heavier materials like glass. In fact, transporting products packaged in glass instead of plastic can require 40 percent more energy, increasing transportation costs by up to five times per unit. Thus, calls for ‘more sustainable’ packaging in the beauty industry are actually prescribing an increase in emissions masked as an environmentally friendly adjustment.

Beyond glass, beauty brands are also turning to recycled paper and aluminum packaging to replace plastics. Analysis notes that, despite brands’ attempt to appear more sustainable, these materials can be poor quality and harder to recycle, lessening their environmental benefit. Research has demonstrated that recycling a pound of plastic uses 91 percent less energy than recycling a pound of paper—another point in the product life cycle in which moving away from plastics fails to produce environmental benefits. Research from Kenneth Green, an environmental scientist and senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, drives home plastics’ value over alternatives: life cycle assessments (LCAs) frequently demonstrate that substituting plastics with alternative materials leads to higher carbon footprints and negative environmental tradeoffs. If Sustainable Beauty continues to move away from plastics, the movement will actually undermine its value proposition of improving the industry’s environmental impact.

Circular policies reap economic and environmental benefits

Plastics’ critics use the material as a red herring for the real problem: a lack of the recycling infrastructure that is needed to capture plastics’ full benefit as a material that can be infinitely recycled and repurposed. Currently, about $80 to $120 billion of post-consumer plastic packaging fails to get recovered and reprocessed around the world each year. Improving recycling systems to capture this avoidable loss presents opportunities to reduce waste and keep this value in the economy.

Creative collaborations indicate the power of this approach within the beauty industry. In 2021, beauty and packaging industry brands/producers in Canada created the Pact Collective, the country’s first nationwide program specifically focused on recycling and repurposing cosmetic product packaging. Pact Collective is grounded in a core principle: circularity. The initiative leverages advanced recycling to divert complex cosmetic plastics—like tubes, caps and pumps—from landfills and transform them into material suitable for new product packaging. With nearly 80 member companies from both the beauty and packaging sectors, Pact Collective charts a promising path forward for Sustainable Beauty that emphasizes collaboration instead of condemnation.

Innovators are leveraging plastics to create sustainable beauty products

Innovative actors are also leveraging technology to use plastics to craft more sustainable personal care products. Kao, a Japanese cosmetics company, has developed a product line utilizing its “AIR bottle,” a pouch filled with air that provides the necessary rigidity of a bottle while using 50 percent less plastic. Further, the AIR bottle is up to 98 percent biodegradable, providing an additional environmental benefit. Other brands, like Love Beauty & Planet, sell products that are made from 100 percent recycled plastic that is also 100 percent recyclable, while skincare companies like Kinship craft packaging from recycled ocean plastics—solutions demonstrating plastics’ power in enabling truly circular products. From a systems approach, consumer goods company Proctor & Gamble is developing a smart-tech recycling method that utilizes scannable, barcode-like product watermarks to determine products’ recyclability and proper sorting, capable of improving circularity across the industry. These companies, and more, understand that categorical denouncements aren’t solutions. Rather, using plastics offers lower greenhouse gas emissions, and investing in effective recycling systems promotes continuous product circularity.

Building a more sustainable future is a shared global vision. Efforts to achieve this goal in the beauty industry must recognize, however, that demonizing plastics does a disservice to the Sustainable Beauty movement. Instead, prioritizing low-carbon materials like plastics and leveraging advanced recycling systems presents a realistic, collaborative approach towards achieving real circularity in the beauty industry.

Want to do more?

Still have questions?