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Waste Not
More Beauty Retailers Embracing a Circular Economy for Packaging

New initiatives from Kiehl’s, Sephora, Shoppers Drug Mart and Ulta lay further groundwork for reducing the beauty industry’s massive plastic footprint.

With an estimated 95 percent of cosmetic and personal-care packaging ending up in landfills and waterways, packaging waste — most of which isn’t accepted in curbside recycling programs — is one of the biggest sustainability challenges facing the beauty industry. According to Forbes, 94 percent of US consumers support recycling and 74 percent believe it should be a priority; however, only 35 percent say they actually recycle due to confusion and lack of convenient options. Well, a growing number of beauty retailers are now offering solutions to that.

Kiehl’s & Benjamin Von Wong’s ‘Single-Use Reflections’ highlights need for circular packaging solutions

Image credit: Benjamin Von Wong

Kiehl’s Since 1851 has partnered with renowned artist & activist Benjamin Von Wong on “Single-Use Reflections” — a sculptural installation on New York City’s High Line that invites viewers to pause and reflect on how both widespread systemic change and small individual lifestyle shifts can positively impact our planet’s future.

The sculpture consists of large-scale mirrors featuring thought-provoking prompts that protrude from the mountain of empty plastic containers and provide unique photo touchpoints. Hidden within the installation is a keyhole where viewers can peek into a miniature world, inspired by an old-world apothecary — highlighting potential ways to reduce plastic waste.

With more than 400 million metric tons of plastic discarded annually around the world, “Single-Use Reflections” highlights the impact of single-use plastic on the beauty of our planet while providing optimism for the future.

“I am honored to be partnering with Kiehl’s to amplify their message around circularity,” said Von Wong — whose issue-driven art combines everyday objects with shocking statistics to drive awareness and change around persistent sustainability issues including ocean plastic, fast fashion and electronic waste. “I was inspired by the Greek legend of the Hydra, which grows back another head for each one that you cut off — reminiscent of the single-use plastic waste problem. I am a firm believer of progress over perfection. Through this sculpture, I hope to inspire people and companies to join Kiehl’s in loudly championing single-use alternatives. I believe that if we can encourage greater refill use, then companies across industries will have greater incentive to start supporting more refill solutions!”

For over 170 years, Kiehl’s has been committed to the health of skin, body and hair and the wellbeing of the world. The company is committed to moving beyond sustainability to circularity — pledging transparency about its journey while taking action and inspiring others, both individuals and companies, to do the same.

As part of its Mission Renewal, Kiehl’s is committed to making single-use plastic a thing of the past by designing 100 percent of its products to be reused, refilled or made of recycled materials by 2030. So far, the company has collected 7 million empty products through Recycle & Be Rewarded in the US; and 33 percent of plastic Kiehl’s packaging come from post-consumer recycled materials.

“Single-Use Reflections” will be on view through April 17 at the High Line in New York City (visiting hours: 7am-10pm EST). To Access: Use the staircase at the corner of 14th Street and 10th Avenue.

Following its display on the High Line, “Single-Use Reflections” will move to a new location as an ongoing reminder to #DontRebuyJustRefill.

Shoppers Drug Mart launches Quo Beauty recycling program

Image credit: Shoppers Drug Mart

Up in Canada, leading pharmacy retailer Shoppers Drug Mart recently launched its free Quo Beauty Cosmetics Free Recycling Program, in partnership with TerraCycle — which enables mail-in recycling of empties from Shoppers’ private-label Quo Beauty cosmetics brand.

For each pound of cosmetics waste shipped in through the recycling program, $1 will be donated to Shoppers Foundation for Women's Health™ — which works to create equitable and accessible care for all women in Canada.

"As we work to ensure all control-brand packaging is recyclable or reusable by 2025, we continue to look for new and innovative ways to eliminate the use of single-us plastics for all product packaging," says Pat Dean, SVP of Category Management at Shoppers Drug Mart. "We are proud to partner with TerraCycle as the first major retailer to offer a recycling program for a private-label color cosmetics line, offering more sustainable choices to Canadians and reducing our impact on the planet."

Customers can mail in their eligible empty Quo Beauty cosmetics components by downloading a prepaid shipping label on the TerraCycle program page. Once collected, the cosmetic packaging is cleaned and separated by material type, and then recycled into raw formats that manufacturers use to make new products.

"The majority of cosmetic products are not accepted by curbside recycling services due to their complex, multilayer packaging, which often includes small components such as wands, pumps, and caps that slip through the sorting machinery at recycling facilities," said TerraCycle founder and CEO Tom Szaky,. "As the first major retailer in Canada to create a free recycling program for their own private-label beauty brand, Shoppers Drug Mart is setting a great example for the beauty industry."

Shoppers’ partnership with TerraCycle comes less than a year after the launch of More Planet Love by Quo Beauty, which includes over 500 products in packaging that uses recycled plastics, mono-materials and reduced plastic. The retailer aims to have all control-brand packaging meet the Canada Plastics Pact’s Golden Design Rules by 2025.

Ulta Beauty takes 'Beauty Drop-Off' chainwide

Image credit: Pact Collective

Meanwhile, Ulta Beauty has expanded its partnership with the nonprofit Pact Collective — which is promoting greater circularity in the beauty industry for both businesses and consumers by providing a solution for hard-to-recycle beauty packaging. Ulta’s Beauty Drop-Off in-store take-back initiative, initially launched in 2023 in 90 stores, can now be found chainwide at the over 1,350 Ulta stores in the US. The program aims to help consumers rid themselves of the burden of recycling beauty SKUs correctly, providing bins where shoppers can drop off empty packaging. Pact then facilitates recycling through upcycling, downcycling, molecular recycling, and waste-to-energy conversion.

"We hope that this collaboration will provide more education and accessibility to beauty consumers," Carly Snider, Executive Director of Pact Collective, told BeautyMatter. "The program highlights the importance of understanding where our packaging goes when we are done using it while offering an end-of-life solution for those trickier packages to recycle. The Beauty Drop-Off’s 1,350+ new locations for consumers to properly dispose of their hard-to-recycle beauty empties has almost doubled Pact's drop-off bin locations overnight."

By 2025, Ulta aims for 50 percent of its product packaging to be recyclable, refillable or made from biosourced materials by 2025.

Pact is also advancing circularity in the beauty industry through a partnership with climate-tech startup Bluebird — which has yielded a turnkey solution to over 150 beauty and wellness brands that allows them to quickly assess the recyclability of their current packaging, and helping them learn what needs changing to keep their products as sustainable as possible. Through the platform, brands can also effectively communicate appropriate disposal and recycling guidelines to consumers through an intuitive interactive e-commerce widget — which provides Pact drop-off bin locations and reflects the most up-to-date recycling infrastructure.

Sephora expands recycling and refill options

Image credit: The New Knew

Pact’s Beauty Drop-Off program is also in place at 600 Sephora stores (under the name Beauty (Re)Purposed), as well as with dozens of other beauty brands and retailers.

Sephora says Beauty (Re)Purposed has already collected more than 10,860 pounds of material — the equivalent of approximately 217,220 lipstick tubes — since its launch in May 2023.

The beauty retailer also continues to add to its roster of refillable beauty products, which now features offerings from more than 45 brands — including Glow Recipe, Fenty Beauty, Ouai, Maison Margiela and Josie Maran.

A cosmetics-packaging industry expert dishes on refillables

Image credit: L’Occitane

Yet, with all this excitement about refillable packaging – is it in fact a viable solution or are there issues that still need to be addressed? In a recent interview in Glossy, an expert in cosmetics packaging shared her thoughts about the potential role of — and challenges with — refillables in a sustainable packaging strategy:

Finding the right format

“Generally speaking, refills are not as sustainable as we’ve been led to believe. One [category] is bottle-in-a-bottle refills, where the packaging has an insert in the form of a refillable cartridge or pot that goes into a keepsake component; those tend to be the least effective of the refills, in regard to sustainability — a lot of times they can actually increase the amount of waste and emissions, because you’re effectively producing two separate packages. Consumers have to purchase the refill four to five times before they start to see any sort of reduction in carbon emissions or waste.

“My preferred refill strategy right now would be refill pouches. They don’t work for every product; but with refill pouches, there’s an automatic reduction in material use. Depending on the pouch, sometimes you can see up to a 90 percent reduction in plastic compared to a standard single-use component."

Lack of infrastructure

"Looking into the future, a lot of beauty brands have explored the idea of doing refill stations. I don’t think our infrastructure is ready for that. There are some big hygiene concerns, understandably; and complexities that just haven’t been worked out yet. But looking to the future, hopefully they will become more feasible to implement.”

Consumer inconvenience

“I’ve helped launch refillable packaging for a number of brands; and based on the conversations behind the scenes, refills still have a very low adoption rate amongst consumers. There isn’t a significant enough price incentive for consumers, and they’d rather just have a brand-new, full component [than save a few dollars]. Consumers just aren’t as motivated to purchase refills and use them.”

Forecasting success

“I’ve had brands want to launch refills for products that have never been on the market before and they have no forecasting data; and I try to discourage them from that, because they don’t know if this is going to be a highly repurchased product.

"On the flip side, there are brands that have products that they know 50 percent of their customers repurchase every 2 to 3 months; so, there’s the potential for the refill system to be successful with their current customers’ repurchasing habits. It is a tricky conversation because a lot of brands want to make a splash with their sustainability implementation efforts — and right now, refills tend to make a splash.”