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Do clean packaging items really exist?

Eco-design, eco-refills, glass, aluminium, zero waste and other reassuring offerings are popping up all over for beauty product packaging items. They are said to be environmentally responsible and “clean”, but are they really? Under pressure from consumers, corporations and brands are trying to develop the least harmful, most affordable packaging, whilst retaining its appeal. A real challenge!

What is an environmentally-responsible, clean packaging item?

It’s virtuous packaging, meaning that its production generates little or no pollution, and disposing of it has no impact on the environment (through eco-design). The difficulty lies in reconciling the use of the product, its cost and its manufacturing norms which are often very specific. And unfortunately, the most polluting materials are often the safest and easiest to use. This is the case for plastic, which is very affordable and practical. Weighing up the pros and cons in the choice of a packaging item is no easy feat and a real headache. All things considered, is nasty old plastic really more harmful than saintly glass? Although there are a great many aspects to assess, one thing’s for sure: the only type of packaging that has no impact is that which doesn’t get produced in the first place (via zero-waste and loose products).

Paper and cardboard – well done to the champions


Cardboard packaging items are thought of as less of a hazard for the planet, since they break down easily if they somehow end up in the natural environment.

Paper pulp fibres are made from wood, and don’t stand up to damp conditions. This is an advantage for nature, but a drawback for corporations. Since cardboard can only be used as a container for dry matter, it often gets rejected. When it comes to clean beauty, it’s the benchmark packaging item for all dry products like soap, dry shampoo and accessories. It is very easy to recycle, since its own recycling scheme produces packaging made from recycled cardboard and paper. And if plant-based, biodegradable ink is used to print the lettering on the packaging made from them, paper and cardboard are the cleanest, most harmless materials in existence. On condition that they are not overwrapped with an outer plastic film to make them more shiny and robust, nor an inner one to make them watertight (as is the case for disposable cups). NB: pitting biodegradable against recyclable makes no sense at all in the case of paper, since it is both. These features are not mutually exclusive!

Plastic packaging – it lasts forever

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It will come as no surprise that plastic (of which there are a great many types) is bottom of the class. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to go without its “qualities” in the packaging items trade. Plastic is lightweight, very affordable, and can be shaped in any number of ways with the use of chemicals. Polymers and processes make it possible to yield a bespoke material: in terms of density, hardness, flexibility, colour and texture. It can be used to produce bottles, and also outer packaging items in the form of clear plastic film and bags, and also boxes, either of mediocre quality or with a very luxurious feel. Basically, plastic offers all the advantages… Except that of being clean!

Once plastic is created, the material (derived from petrochemical oil) never goes away. At best, it gets recycled and turned into new packaging or items. This is a process that has its limits, since plastic loses its proprieties as it gets recycled over and over, and new “virgin” plastic soon has to be added in.

The problem with incinerating plastic

At worst, plastic waste gets incinerated or goes into landfill, giving rise to extensive ground and air pollution, as the incineration (or pyrolysis) of plastic emits CO2 and contributes towards global warming. It turns up in the sea, where it breaks down into microplastics, which are impossible to filter. This plastic waste colonises the sea and gets ingested by marine organisms that sometimes end up on our plates! Cutting down on plastic use is a challenge, not least for food products and beauty products, which require impeccable hygiene standards. These days manufacturers are offering more and more environmentally-responsible alternatives, like:

  • Packaging items made from PCR (Post-Consumer Recycled) plastic, which is none other than recycled plastic from household rubbish
  • Lighter bottle tops/caps (made smaller).

Bioplastic, not so fantastic?

Plant-based plastic (or bioplastic) is said to have the qualities of petrochemical plastic without its drawbacks. Except that… Made from sugar cane or maize, it is sometimes bio-sourced, but not always biodegradable. In addition, although it is made without petrochemical oil, this poses other problems. The plant-based material has to be supplied in large quantities, and therefore requires the use of soil to grow the plants. But using a consumable resource and arable land to make plastic at a time when millions of people are starving to death is questionable. Not forgetting that these plants, which often come from the other side of the world, have a large carbon footprint before they are even turned into plastic.

Bioplastics, neither organic nor biodegradable

Also, “bio-PE” (PolyEthylene) and “bio-PET” (PolyEthyleneTerephthalate) undergo chemical changes that make them similar to petrosourced plastic. A plastic bag made from bioplastic derived from sugar cane will take tens of years to break down, like a standard plastic bag. And if in the meantime the plant-based plastic bag ends up in the sea, it will suffocate turtles nonetheless. This is the ambiguity maintained by bioplastics. Their name has “bio” in it, which leads us to believe that they are produced without chemicals, and naturally biodegradable. Whereas most plastic items marked “biodegradable” are not, on a home compost heap. They only break down in industrial composters, which are very scarce, at least in France. As for the sorting schemes with a view to recycling these bioplastics – they don’t exist. These bioplastics, which sometimes end up in the yellow bin with the other plastic waste, will get collected and sent to a recycling facility that won’t be able to deal with them.

To address this issue, the new label “OK Home Compost ” flags up waste items that break down by themselves in the natural environment or on a household compost heap. Lastly, these plant-based plastics will nonetheless emit CO2 if they get incinerated at the end of their lives.

The glass ceiling

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Glass is considered the cleanest material there is. It does offer a great many advantages. Endlessly recyclable, washable, nice to look at, it can be used to make things of beauty. But glass production involves furnaces that burn day and night at very high temperatures (over 1500°C), therefore using a lot of energy. In addition, it can prove heavy. So freight transport for it adds some pollution into the equation and adds to its carbon footprint. So the solution is to embrace what’s known as “lightened” glass. Lastly, glass is fragile. It can get broken in transit, or become dangerous in store or when in use in the home. Due to these drawbacks, glass is still often (wrongly?) overlooked by corporations and consumers in their choice of materials. But this is starting to change.

Glass – a strategic choice

No-one wants to see a shower gel bottle smash in the bathtub. But for all other uses (cleansing waters, oils, serums, creams, etc.), glass is a very good alternative to plastic. It’s refillable, and in that case, only gets produced and transported once.

Aluminium called into question

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Packaging items made of aluminium, unlike those made of glass, are relatively light. As for waste, aluminium is not biodegradable and can hang around in the natural environment for a long time. However, it can be recycled easily and endlessly (on condition that it gets sorted and separated from its associated tops and pumps, of course).

Another important point: if aluminium ends up on the sea bed, it oxidises and turns to dust (with no impact on underwater life) … Unlike plastic, which breaks down into microplastics, which sooner or later get ingested by fish, which end up of our plates.

When it comes to beauty product packaging, the cleanest option (with a look similar to that of virgin aluminium) is:

  • Either PCR (Post-Consumer Recycled) aluminium
  • Or PIR (Post Industrial Recycled) aluminium. The recycled material is derived from aluminium production scrap.

The fact that aluminium is opaque makes it an excellent option for beauty product packaging.

There are nonetheless two drawbacks associated with aluminium:

  • Producing it means extracting it from certain minerals (including bauxite) using polluting chemical processes, which on a global scale emit millions de tons of greenhouse gases and use up large amounts of water and energy. Open-cut bauxite mines are harmful to the environment (chemical waste, effects on flora and fauna)
  • It gets damaged easily. So you sometimes have to be prepared to buy products that have got a little battered (in transit).

Aluminium and polyfoil – don’t mistake one for the other

You might think you’re buying something packaged in aluminium, whereas in fact the packaging is made up of various layers, including plastic ones. Called polyfoil, this process makes it possible to make little hand cream tubes that are flexible and not brittle, for example. It’s impossible to consider anything close to recycling here, since polyfoil’s various layers cannot be separated from each other.

Aluminium: a food safety risk

As far as the harmless nature of aluminium goes, it is said to leach into food products too readily, which could have considerable impact on human health. Whereas it’s very commonly used: to produce drinks cans, ready-meal trays, cans and aluminium foil.

Do eco-friendly packaging items exist?

If by eco-friendly you mean “which has no impact on the environment”, the answer is a definitive no. Apart from re-using a paper bag (on condition that the inks used are biodegradable), producing anything uses energy, and therefore resources, petrochemical oil and water, among others, and emits CO2. So you have to make a choice and pick your battles, taking account of the material’s entire life cycle: production, use and end of life. You also have to take a long-term view of the packaging rather than a “single-use” one. 

Packaging items and eco-design

Recyclable, re-useable… These days, packaging items can no longer afford to skip eco-design! Cutting down on the amount of plastic used, thanks to eco-refills instead of throwaway bottles, is a step in the right direction. But most importantly the ideal thing to do is to cut down on packaging items with a very long lifespan, and favour recycled and recyclable materials.

Recycling must be rolled out widely

As well as encouraging consumers, we must have the support of the authorities and politicians to increase sorting capacity and shore up recycling schemes. When is there going to be a reward for those who sort their rubbish and so allow local councils to save money? And what about companies (of which there are still too few) who develop internal systems for employees to not only fill their office wastepaper baskets but sort them as well? Because with glass bottles in restaurants and paper in offices, how much recyclable waste slips through the net?

So the ideal environmentally-responsible packaging item would be perfectly biodegradable in the natural environment, or on a garden compost heap, or rendered into energy via methanisation, a technique whereby fuel is produced from organic, household or farm waste. Except that this packaging item does not exist. It’s up to you to pick your battles!

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