A year after beauty expert Vasudha Rai took a stand against irresponsible packaging, we talk recyclables

After sustainability became the buzzword for 2020, it has been diluted to being just an adjective for marketing initiatives. While efforts are being made to reduce and recycle, the endless outflow of gift boxes reflect our double standards on waste. I’m waiting for some real change. Like if Pantene and Sunsilk replaced hard-to-recycle sachets with shampoo bars. Or if big beauty brands completely stopped manufacturing elaborate press kits, inserts and leaflets. This would make us all sit up and take notice, but as of today we are yet to see any brave initiatives.

The problem with gifting

In October 2019, I said no to decorative boxes and coffrets. I regret to inform you that it didn’t really change anything. Neither did it put an end to decorative boxes, nor did it help reduce my personal waste. But this Diwali has been excellent. After I refused to accept freebies altogether, there is 90% less waste from my home. Even though I have missed several luxurious beauty confections, in the larger scheme of things, every courier missed is less waste created.

That’s not to say gifting isn’t important. It is, because that’s how influencers and journalists discover new products. But instead of blindly sending us every new product, it would be better to have a choice. I miss the days when instead of a bag of free products, beauty writers were offered a discount on products they bought. If we did have that choice, it would lead to a more nuanced, individualised conversation on, say, serum, as opposed to blanket posts identified correctly as brand plugs.

The loopholes

The fact is that waste is a subject that makes us all deeply uncomfortable. For this article many important brands didn’t send their responses. So the ones mentioned here deserve credit as they’ve allowed themselves to be part of a difficult conversation. Brands are making an effort, whether it is reducing plastic or collecting waste, but these initiatives need to leapfrog to match current times. The issues to be considered are:

In the works

  • P&G is working to establish a Hygiene Products Recycling facility in India. Developed in Italy by Fater, a joint venture of P&G and the Angelini Group, the brand is creating a model to bring this to life in India.
  • Amazon pleged to go completely free of single use plastic in 2019. They have also partnered with collection agencies to collect and recycle plastic waste equal to the 100% plastic waste generated across their network.
  • Nykaa has kicked off a 10×10 initiative to reduce the amount of plastic used by volume and value by 10% every year over the next five years. ‘Nykaa only uses already recycled paper and at an overall level, paper now constitutes 90% of material used for packing’, says the brand.
  • Unilever has partnered with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to initiate an end-to-end plastic waste management programme by setting up a material recovery facility called Swachhta Kendras. The programme has reached out to 33,000 households to collect segregated dry waste. It has picked up nearly 2,500 tonnes of plastic waste so far.
  • L’Oreal has tied up with packaging biggie Albea to produce their first carton-based cosmtic tube. Launched in May 2020 by La Roche-Posay and Garnier, it sounds similar to Innisfree’s recyclable paper bottle made with 51.8% less plastic than a regular bottle.

Who recycles the recyclables?

“About 70% of our waste lies untreated and nearly 25%-30% of the waste produced in India isn’t collected,” says professor Brajesh Dubey of IIT Kharagpur’s Environmental Engineering department. The expert on waste management further explains that while most plastics get recycled if collected properly, ones like “squeezable tubes, made with different types of plastics blended together, are difficult to recycle”. As are products such as sheet masks that are made with mixed materials like fibre, paper and plastic. “But, there’s hope. As plastic comes from crude petrol, these products can be used to make energy in a waste-to-energy plant with proper pollution control,” adds Dubey.

The process of recycle and reuse may sound simple, but it is extremely labour intensive. “Everyone thinks they can make money out of waste, but the reality is that waste is not gold,” says Dr Manoj Datta, professor and head of the Civil Engineering Department at IIT Delhi, and an expert on landfills. “Plastic has to undergo so many processes — cleaning, drying, cutting and shredding — before it can be recycled, which means increased costs, especially if it is fished out of landfills,” he says. Therefore, collections done in a responsible manner are as important as making recyclable packaging.

Bioplastic is complicated

Even more problematic than traditional polymers is bio/compostable plastic which, unfortunately, is the new buzzword in cosmetic packaging. “If it gets accidentally mixed with traditional plastic after disposal, it ruins the entire recycling chain,” says Dubey. In India, even if bioplastic has mnemonics marking it separately, neither the waste picker nor the customer will take the effort to sort it. “It also causes logistical problems in a compost or biogas plant where they take longer to degrade, which means that they cannot be mixed with other green waste that decomposes quickly.” We don’t have dedicated composting centres for them in India, therefore bioplastics aren’t resolving the problem but adding to it.

Customer checklist

  • – Separate waste into wet and dry
  • – Remove labels and wash containers before handing them out to increase the chance of them being recycled.
  • – Say no to gift boxes that hold small samples
  • – Even if you can’t find a recycling agency, always handover paper, plastic and glass to the kabadiwala
  • – Sign up for reward programmes to return empties

Paper and glass are also waste

Dubey says that even paper needs to be collected properly, recycled and/or composted. “If it reaches the landfill, it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is bad for the environment.” Dr Datta even found a newspaper (10-15-years-old) in a dumping ground because not all paper decomposes easily. As for glass, it requires a lot of energy to be made and to be recycled.

Real innovations

“It is essential to do a comparative life cycle assessment that looks at the environmental, economic and social aspects of a problem in a holistic way. We need to take into account the energy and money utilised and the long-term impact of each and every material, rather than blindly eschew plastic for bioplastic, paper, and glass,” says Dubey, who was a judge at The Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge at Washington DC last year. He talks about an innovation from the first prize winner in the Circular Economy category: Alagramo from Chile. They made a mobile vending van with shampoos, conditioners and soaps from various brands that could be filled into personal bottles. “This has the potential to get rid of single-use sachets,” he says.

Alagramo’s mobile van

For both brands and customers, this is the time to question how we use beauty products. Is a body wash really better than soap? I have gone back to using soap for two reasons: firstly, it comes with barely any packaging and secondly, a body wash isn’t that much better in terms of skin benefits. Similarly, are face masks better in powder form than paste? A mask powder will require lesser packaging, preservatives and will give me the flexibility to add a hydrosol, honey, milk or fruit according to my skin type. Can we also revisit products with double benefits like shampoos with conditioners? Talking of hair care, I find large conditioner bottles extremely wasteful. No one ends up finishing the entire bottle.

Brand checklist

  • – Find a complete solution — from creating to composting — for bioplastics
  • – Reduce mixed materials
  • – Ensure collections match the manufactured volume
  • – Run CSR campaigns on waste management to educate customers
  • – Explore biomining landfills

The truth is that we need both path-breaking innovation and a return to the basics. Given that our decades-old raddiwalla and waste-picker network is the most reliable way of disposing waste, sometimes the simplest solutions are the best, especially in the complicated world of beauty waste.

The writer is The Hindu Weekend’s beauty columnist

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