How many times can you deep clean your bathroom or re-organize your vanity in a given month? For most of us, the number shot up exponentially this year, with excess downtime turning home projects into deeply cathartic acts. With all that productivity comes an underlying dilemma: What to do with those tubes and pumps now destined for your trash and recycling bins? And what even belongs in there anyway?
“By default, the bathroom is one of the most difficult places for folks to recycle,” says Gina Herrera, who is the North American Senior Director of Brand Partnerships for TerraCycle, an organization dedicated to eliminating waste when it comes to non-recyclable, or traditionally hard to recycle items, like beauty products. And while the exact number of beauty products that end up in the trash isn't easily quantifiable, consider this: Non-recyclable packaging—120 billion units of which is produced by the global beauty industry, according to the awareness campaign for Zero Waste Week—makes up one quarter of landfill refuse.
As for Westman Atelier's signature sticks, compacts, and mascara wands? Here's a snapshot of where we're at: We are fully committed to the health of our planet, from choosing FSC-certified sustainable birchwood handles for our brushes to researching novel plastic alternatives for future products, and working only with labs that implement innovative energy reduction and waste disposal strategies; our secondary packaging is made from Invercote, a paperboard with one of the lowest carbon footprints available. And (big news!), we are in the process of a major initiative to convert to refillable packaging, starting with our circular compacts. (Stay tuned for more on that soon!) For now, you can currently take WA products to any of Credo Beauty's nine nationwide stores for complimentary recycling via Pact, or send them directly to TerraCycle using their paid Zero Waste box program.
Whatever your favorite products, from the eucalyptus scented body wash that's an instant sanity check to the red lipstick that makes you feel like you, we hope this shorthand guide makes it easier to get more of them into the recycling bin.
Start with Your City's Recycling Program
Identify the bathroom items you regularly discard—such as cotton pads or toothpaste—and find out if and how you can recycle them with your local municipality, since regulations may differ by city. Rules surrounding paper, plastics, glass and more are listed on your city’s recycling page, as well as websites such as RecycleNation, an easy-to-use recycling location database. For instance, while many local programs will accept certain cotton products along with your compost, most will reject toothpaste, along with lotion and anything that holds dangerous or corrosive chemicals, such as perfume or nail polish.
Join a Program for Non-Curbside Recyclables
Now that you have a handle on the usual suspects, dive a little deeper. Used compacts that contain magnets or mirrors—often found in blushes, eye shadows, highlighters, bronzers—or anything with batteries that can not easily be removed is also off the table when it comes to curb-side recycling. For those and other items, Gina Herrera says, find a program like Call2Recycle, which specializes in the safe disposal of batteries, or TerraCycle, which offers a variety of free recycling programs in partnership with major cosmetic brands as well as a paid option called Zero Waste Box (buy a box, pop in any type of waste, and ship it back to TerraCycle once it's full—they'll do the work for you). The only rule that applies across the board, no matter how it’s picked up or dropped off: Clean out everything as best as possible, says Herrera. That means emptying half full conditioner bottles, squeezing leftover toothpaste from the tube, or scraping out lipstick from the bullet. If you rinse out a container, adds Herrera, "make sure it is dry.”
Look at Numbers, Labels and Lids
Back in your bathroom, take inventory of the materials still in question. Glass and aluminum packaging for non-toxic products are often curb-side recyclable—look for a #1 or #2 recycling symbol for confirmation. Just know that all liquids, labels, and flip top lids must be removed and thrown in the trash before the empty bottle is placed in your recycling bin. Pumps and springs, on items like shampoo, and trigger headed bottle caps, too. “Materials composed of multipolymers make it more difficult for a traditional municipal recycler to get the job done,” says Herrera, who adds that mascara wands and makeup brushes are complicated for similar reasons.
Think Big Picture When It Comes to Plastics
Plastics are even trickier—especially when it comes to personal care products, says Shilpi Chhotray, the global communications lead for Break Free From Plastic, a movement that works with nearly 1,900 organizations to fight plastic pollution. The unfortunate truth is that even when all the right steps are followed, she says, there are no guarantees. For instance, the color of the packaging matters, since the manner in which most material gets sorted is based on how a piece absorbs light (black bottles often get tossed into landfills for this reason). Size is also a big sticking point. Smaller plastic items, like lipstick tubes or liners or anything that conveniently fits in a clutch, she adds “will quite literally fall through the cracks” simply because current mass recycling technology can’t easily identify and process them along with larger items such as bottles and pans. Ultimately, only 9% of plastics actually get recycled, while the rest gets shipped to places like Southeast Asia, dumped in landfills or the ocean, or burned.
Don’t let this discourage you. Do as much as you can—every piece of counts!—and remember the best means of offsetting your total plastic output can be by looking for other ways to reduce your single plastic household waste, whether that means committing to a favorite refillable hand soap in the bathroom, or compostable coffee pods in the kitchen.
When in Doubt, Ask Questions
When confirming the recyclability of any beauty product you own or are currently in the market for, inquire with your favorite brands. That can be as simple as asking, “what can you tell me about the end of life of this product? Where will it go?” If anything, it will encourage you to make more sustainable purchases in the future.
Retailers can also be a resource: Mission-driven companies like the aforementioned Credo Beauty offer free recycling for anything that’s dropped off at their stores via Pact (bonus: you'll earn reward points for every full-size bottle). Eco-conscious nail salons like Ten Over Ten have been known to accept expired polishes (their program is currently on hiatus as a result of the pandemic, but keep checking back). And while the world waits for their favorite shops to fully re-open, Herrera recommends using this time to collect and store items in a closed bin until it’s safe to make drop offs again.
Remember: Do Recycle, Don’t Wish-Cycle
If you’re still unsure of where an expired beauty product belongs, throw it in the trash. Tossing something in the recycling bin with the hope that it will end up in the right place is called wish-cycling, and it’s very common. “While well intentioned,” says Herrera, “the wrong material can contaminate otherwise recyclable material, which leads to additional waste in the landfill.” The safer bet? Invest in a bathroom waste bin with a separate compartment for recyclables. It's a great reminder to tap into something as simple as an empty (and recyclable) cardboard toilet paper roll or your nightly makeup removing cotton pads. Besides, a new DIY project may just get you through another week of quarantine.