Deviant Beauty: Un-packaging the Beauty Industry’s Waste Problem

Maria Penaranda // Arts & Culture Editor

When the global climate strike reached Vancouver, I was there. I saw hordes of people, a sea of bodies pushing and squeezing past one another, trying to follow the direction of drowned-out megaphone voices. I observed the people that composed the crowds. There were many mothers with unhinged, excited children, some Indigenous middle-aged women held ant-pipeline signs, a group of vegans held up a giant go-vegan sign, a smiling elderly couple walked along with their bikes—but mostly, I noticed a lot of really stylish teenagers. I recognized some of the clothing: Brandy Melville striped pants, Aritzia puffer jackets, white Nike Air Force sneakers, washed out Levi boyfriend jeans. There were thousands of signs. One read “Stop Trying to Make Coal Happen” with a picture of Regina George pasted on it. I saw at least three that read “Hot Girl Summer NOT Season.” One toddler had a sign as big as his body draped around his neck that read “Earth Needs More Likes” with a giant Facebook thumbs up. It all felt a bit weird to me.

That night, I had dinner with my cousins. “So what were your demands,” one of them asked me earnestly. Taken aback, I paused to think. “That’s actually a good question,” I replied with a sad half-chuckle. What the fuck were our demands? To urge our government to take action on global warming? Is that all? I wondered, was this strike just a performance, a single day where we show up and act like we care and post pictures with our cute, witty signs, and forget about it the next day? Am I that hypocrite, that person who shows up to the climate strike, takes photos, and continues with my buying and consuming patterns the next day without a second thought? I really, really don’t want to be that person. 

At home, I emptied out my beauty products onto my bed, separating the products I use every day—my essentials. I was curious: how many of my everyday beauty products are recyclable, and how many will end up in landfills?

I started researching and learned some pretty basic things that totally challenged my outlook on waste. For one thing, recycling is an industry. Everything you put into your blue bin that gets recycled is being sold to buyers who repurpose the recycled materials for their products. The materials you can and cannot recycle depends on what your municipality accepts. In British Columbia, Recycle BC is in charge of blue bin recycling, so I called their hotline in search of answers to my beauty-related recycling questions. The rep answered almost immediately.

You know the so-called recycling symbol of the three chasing arrows? It doesn’t actually mean an item is recyclable at all. It’s actually a symbol that indicates the type of plastic a manufacturer uses, with the number within the sign indicating the resin (the type) of the plastic. There’s no regulation or control over the use of the symbol, and manufacturers can stick that symbol wherever they want. I continued to parse through my scattered list of questions with the ever-patient stranger on the other side of the phone. I asked her what resin numbers BC accepts, and she said that BC doesn’t go by resin number. Instead, the Recycle BC blue bin program accepts materials that are rigid plastic packaging. This means you can’t recycle your soft plastic beauty products, like toothpaste tubes. It also means that your plastic recycling has to be packaging, not a product (for example, you can recycle a tub of lotion, but not your tupperware). Another important thing: you really do need to clean out those empties. If you don’t, they will be deemed contaminated and end up in landfills or damage the materials being sold to buyers. With beauty products, wipe off the excess product from the container and put it in a sealed container to prevent the chemicals from being washed down the drain and further contaminating the ocean.

Out of the ten beauty products I use every day, only three are recyclable: my shampoo/body wash, conditioner, and moisturizer. The base of my chemical exfoliant is recyclable, but the pump is not. The tube of sunscreen I use every day is not recyclable (at least in BC), despite the brand telling me it was in a cheerful Instagram reply complete with a raising hands emoji and a “recycle” (three chasing arrows) emoji. The rest of my products — my eyeliner, lipstick, blush, and brow gel—are all destined for some landfill where they will take upwards of 400 years to decompose, turning into microplastics that enter and contaminate our ecosystems.

Most of us, I assume, are totally disconnected from our trash; we have no relationship to it. The second it falls from our hands and into the garbage, recycling or compost bin, it falls out of our consciousness too.

For so long I’ve been a broken record in thinking and repeating that when it comes to waste and climate change, power is held only by the conglomerates and corporations that systemically dominate our lives, and the majority of us are powerless in our individual efforts. Although there’s some truth in that, it’s really just a convenient lie I tell myself so that I can continue consuming with ease-of-mind, not thinking about my own responsibility in relation to the things I buy, use and discard.

If our world is driven by profit, then we have profound power as consumers in choosing what we do and don’t buy. If enough people in Canada, or even BC, stopped purchasing single-use plastic beauty products, I’m sure the change would be significant enough for the beauty industry to seriously reconsider their approach to manufacturing products. Many of us already refuse to purchase products that have been tested on animals. Considering how beauty products are wiping out marine life, how can we continue to purchase them without thinking twice? 

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