The Tradeoffs Posed By Different Beauty Packaging Materials

Glass isn’t a sustainable packaging panacea.

As beauty brands seek to replace plastic, the material has become a go-to alternative, but every alternative has trade-offs. Glass is energy intensive to produce, heavy to ship and relatively easy to damage. And, while it’s recyclable, less than a third of glass containers were recycled in the United States in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Glass packaging often contains plastic pumps or lids and, without removing them, it’s discarded from the recycling process.

“It’s challenging to do glass right,” said Olga Kachook, senior manager of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, who participated last Friday along with Pacific Packaging Components president Brandon Frank and Neal Haussel, strategic business development director at Iggesund, in Beauty Independent’s webinar supported by the paperboard manufacturer. “It’s harder to source recycled content for the specifications that a lot of beauty packaging has. There’s some plastic that is more readily recyclable than glass, and I think that surprises people.”

In light of glass’s issues, is plastic really the evil it’s made out to be? The answer is complicated, according to Brandon Frank. He said, “Glass is better from an end-of-life standpoint, but plastic is better from a carbon emissions standpoint. So, it depends on what your goal is. What’s important to you as a brand and as a brand owner?”

Frank explained plastic’s environmental footprint would shrink if the recycling system was better. “The recycling stream has never really fully developed. We just don’t capture it,” he said of plastic. “We have to buy more PCR [post consumer recycled plastic]. That’s going to encourage more investment and more expansion of our recycling systems, and it’s going to create more PCR availability.”

During the webinar, Kachook, Haussel and Frank delved into much more than the plastic-glass debate. Here are four key takeaways from it that can inform brands’ environmental efforts.

1. Circularity Is Crucial

Kachook, Haussel and Frank agreed circularity, which accounts for the entire lifecycle of a material, is critical. Kachook said, “One of the reasons why it’s helpful to have the circular economy as a framework is because, as consumers, we’re focused on recovery, and that translates into the work of companies and brands and their focus on whether packaging can be recycled, and there’s not a lot of focus on the other parts of the supply chain.”

Recycling is important, but Kachook, Haussel and Frank stressed brands should pay equal attention to the sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, usage and recovery of packaging to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different materials. Sourcing and manufacturing have incredible impacts. As Kachook and Frank suggested, glass manufacturing has a high level of energy consumption, but the material is recyclable. Paperboard, in the other hand, scores well on both the manufacturing and recycling fronts. Like plastic, aluminum is recyclable, but it’s made from bauxite that’s mined. The mining process can leave environmental destruction in its wake, and heating bauxite to yield aluminum requires a large amount of energy.

2. Functionality Comes First

To foster circularity, Haussel asserted functionality should be the first consideration. He expounded, “Functionality has to lead the way. If you can remove plastic where it’s not needed or where it can be replaced, it can have a substantial impact.” Iggesund commissioned a study to compare the environmental consequences of various packaging solutions, and the study discovered that small packaging tweaks like removing plastic blister packs can reduce the environmental impact of packaging by over 70%. Brands should be looking for modifications that retain functionality while minimizing environmental injury.

“Is it really only plastic we should be considering? Yes and no,” said Haussel. “Because all packaging materials come with pros and cons as they relate to environmental load and functionality and with respect for end-of-life scenarios, all three factors need to be weighed. There’s a lot of ifs and buts, and you have to really consider the details because so many things can be variable.”

3. Eco-Consciousness Beyond Material Choices

Brand founders shouldn’t only be thinking about what materials they select. They should think about whether the materials they select are refillable or reusable as well. Programs like CupClub, which replaces disposable cups with returnable cups, and Loop, TerraCycle’s zero-waste consumer packaged goods shopping concept available at Kroger and Walgreens, encourage products to be used and used again.

While the intentions of the zero-waste programs are undoubtedly good, Kachook cautioned the heavy material reuse requires can cause greater emissions in manufacturing and transport. She said, “It would have to be used multiple times to break even or have a benefit.” Turning to refill, Frank relayed that it’s most successful with items applied every day like deodorants and cosmetics. However, perfume could be a refill candidate, too. For refill, a smaller vial than a perfume’s original weighty glass packaging could work.

Concentrated formulas are being experimented with, too. However, there may be a steep consumer learning curve associated with them. Increasingly being tried in cleaning supplies, concentrated formulas can be housed in smaller packaging with diminished distribution impacts. Still, consumers have to adapt to them. Kachook said, “There are ways to mess up the process.” For example, she figured consumers can use more of the product than they’re supposed to, undermining the gains from concentration.

4. Steps Toward SuStainability 

“Sustainability is incredibly complex, and it can be difficult to chart a path forward,” said Frank. To help brands sort through the complexity, he laid out three strategies brands can employ to address their environmental footprint: waste reduction, supply chain impact assessment and renewable resource utilization. Among the three strategies, he identified waste reduction as having the greatest effect. Waste reduction is about taking stock of the end of a material’s life, not simply hoping it will get recycled. To do so, brands must label their packaging properly as part of broader education initiatives to compel consumers to recycle appropriately.

“We often say that things are recyclable,” said Frank, “but that’s not really the question we need to be asking. It’s not, Is it recyclable?, but is it highly likely to be recycled at the end-of-life standpoint? That’s the question [brands] need to be asking themselves when selecting packaging.” He added, “Sustainability is not a destination. It’s not a light switch you flip and, boom, I’m sustainable. Sustainability is a complex journey. The goal is not to become sustainable. It’s to always become a little bit more sustainable, always moving the needle.”