How The Personal Care Industry Can Help Address The Plastic Crisis
Small upstart proves there’s a way forward for the big players
We need to stop creating new (virgin) plastic. We also need to find effective ways to use all the plastic that’s already been created and divert it from being pushed out of sight into landfills or the environment.
At Bathing Culture we’ve proved that the personal care industry is uniquely positioned to help solve this issue by transitioning to packaging made from 100% recycled and responsibly reprocessed plastic.
Transitioning how we use our existing plastic resources, will result in slightly higher the upfront costs, but long-term environmental, personal health, and social costs of our everyday products being will be significantly lower.
Whenever I use the bathroom at a friends house I sneak a peek in their shower. It’s often the same story: a crazy clutter of plastic bottles: plastic face cream, plastic shampoo, plastic conditioner, plastic body wash — the one thing the vast majority of these products have in common is that they are packaged in virgin plastic. Meaning they are in packaging that is adding MORE plastic into the environment, not reusing the plastic we already have.
For the last year I’ve worked with colleagues, consultants and industry experts to get to the bottom of why we are using so much virgin plastic packaging for our personal care products. Along the way, I learned a lot of helpful information that could help us all to make better decisions about how to pick the right product (and bottle).
This article is the story of our journey to get to the bottom of these bottles and how we took action based on these finding to roll out the best possible packaging for our Mind and Body Wash!
What I learned surprised me, and led my company, Bathing Culture, to transition all of our bottles to 100% responsibly recycled plastic.
Most Bottles Are Made from Virgin Plastic — That’s Bad
The majority of our everyday personal care products are packed in the bottles that are cheapest for manufacturers. That means they’re packaged in virgin plastic. Virgin plastic is plastic that has been created for the first time; it’s the opposite of recycled plastic. Virgin plastic is created by separating and chemically conditioning crude oil.
While that may sound like an intense, costly process, virgin plastic is used most often because, in the short term, it’s actually less expensive! But this only factors in the upfront costs (the cost that manufacturers have to pay to get the plastic). It doesn’t consider the total costs that new plastic has on the environment and public health; costs that are hard to quantify but are very, very high.
There are now 8 billion tons of plastic in the world. That means, even when you can’t see it, it’s everywhere. There’s a garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas. Microplastics are now part of our food, with the average person consuming over 70,000 microplastics per year — and these particles have been directly linked to cancer. Research continues to pile up that the extraordinary volume of plastic waste is one of the main drivers of the current mass extinction.
We need to stop making plastic. We also need to find ways to reuse all of the plastic that’s already been produced.
It seems like the best thing to do is to stop the creation of new plastic and just reprocess all the plastic that’s already been made. We could recycle the existing plastic into new bottles — and in the process help solve the plastics crisis — without completely changing how are personal care products are packaged!
But it’s a little more complicated than that. The industry is designed to maximize profit, not factor in environmental costs. To make matters worse, if not done thoughtfully recycling can use more energy than it takes to produce new plastics.
Bottles Made from Recycled Material Can be Bad too
When you start to dig into the recycling industry, it opens a window into the perverse nature of the global economy. For years, rather than reprocess materials locally, it has been cheaper for recycling to be collected in the US, driven to ports, shipped to China, driven to factories, reprocessed, driven back to ports, shipped back across the ocean, trucked to dealers, trucked to manufacturers and finally trucked to your shower. From an environmental standpoint, the carbon cost has been huge.
Not all recycling centers are efficient, some require huge amounts of water and power to operate.
Depending on where centers are located resource draws may be having a negative draw on the environment. Taken together, if you’re not careful about how and where recycling is being transported, it has the potential to be hugely inefficient.
Are There Plastic Alternatives?
One of the best alternatives to plastic bottles are hard forms of personal care products, like bar soap. However, many of our favorite products, like conditioners and moisturizers, can’t easily be made into hard form without adding some nasty chemicals that may harm personal health.
Although bar soap is a great, environmentally friendly option, people aren’t buying bar soaps like they used to. In fact, bar soap sales have been dropping every year for the last decade. Generations of marketing have convinced consumers that bar soap is dirty and undesirable. As a result, product development teams have been focused on making liquid products higher quality. One easy step: ask your favorite brands to make high-quality bar soaps, shampoos and conditioners.
In the meantime, liquid products (which require packaging) dominate the market as the most-sold personal care products by volume. It’s very unlikely that body wash (or other liquid products) will disappear anytime soon, so we need to find ways to make them safe and sustainable. We need to find the best possible packaging.
Bioplastics Aren’t Scalable (Yet)
When it comes to bottles, one of the most promising areas of innovation is bioplastics. There are a lot cool things going on in this space — unfortunately, there are some tradeoffs, too. Some of the most promising options aren’t yet ready for production.
One type of bioplastic, made from sugarcane, is almost molecularly identical to traditional plastic, so — just like regular plastic — it doesn’t biodegrade. So while it’s made from plants, it’s also adding more plastic into the environment, instead of utilizing the plastic we already have.
The most promising plant-based bottle we found is made out of rice fiber and is totally biodegradable. Alas, they’re still just prototypes. Even if we waited for them to move out of the prototype phase, the company making these rice-fiber bottles isn’t sure how they’re going to produce these bottles without being prohibitively expensive. Stay tuned!
Glass and Ceramic
At first, glass bottles seemed like a good option, but after examining the carbon costs of shipping and reprocessing glass (it’s really heavy and has a high melt point) we realized it wouldn’t be a great fit. The other issue with glass came into clear focus after I cut myself on one of these bottles and our insurance agent started calling at odd hours because they were having nightmares — of glass shattering in the shower.
We also explored ceramic options — again, this is an area where there is some promise, but also tradeoffs. They’re very expensive, so only make sense in the context of being very high end or refillable. Similar to glass, breakability is an issue.
There’s a path to more glass and ceramic bottles in the future (especially for hand soap), but when it comes to the shower we’ll still likely have to stick to plastic.
Next, we explored aluminum bottles. We were surprised by the reprocessing costs and outright shocked by the environmental impact of current mining practices and lack of clarity regarding the chain of custody — meaning that it’s really hard to find out where aluminum originated from and what steps it went through on the way to us. The conclusion of our environmental analysis was that the impact of these bottles was very similar to plastic. We did a limited run over the summer and gained valuable bather feedback — most notably that if the bottles were heated up (say, by a hot shower) soap or other products would spurt out. We’re still testing tops with these, but on the whole, it’s a mixed bag.
Eureka! Reused Plastic
Explorations of all of these options brought us back to plastic: it’s shower safe, meaning you can drop it and it (typically) won’t break, it won’t conduct heat like aluminum, and most importantly it’s easy to recycle. If it’s processed locally, it’s possible to make a high quality recycled with about 77% less energy than with virgin plastic. With the right partners, it’s also relatively easy to trace where the plastic is coming from and where it’s going.
Every ton of plastic diverted from landfills saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space. That’s enough to fill a backyard pool!
In spite of the overwhelming benefits of using recycled plastic, everyone we spoke with told us it would never fly.
Over and over, people in the personal care and plastics industry told us we couldn’t do it.
They said it was too expensive. We heard about how most companies just use a token amount of recycled material and then market that they’re earth-friendly. Appearance, scale, and scarcity all came up as folks warned us away from the option that was best for the environment. We took their council and then spent the year working to prove them wrong.
Overcoming Transportation and Reprocessing Costs
On our quest for an environmentally conscious bottle, the most persistent challenge we faced was cost: reusing materials can be 10 times more expensive than using virgin materials. There are a few reasons for this. First, low demand: while there is a lot of extra plastic in the world, there is relatively low demand for it to be reprocessed, largely because the price of virgin plastic is so low.
Without incentives (or subsidies) for environmentally responsible options, the companies who sell reprocessed plastics charge more for it. The technology to reprocess bottles is also really expensive and fairly involved; most of the facilities that reprocess plastic cost more than $60 million to build. It’s also expensive to clean and transport recycling.
The next challenge is that you can’t buy a few thousand personal care bottles made from reused material. Existing manufacturing is set up to do large production runs so the minimum quantity you’re permitted to purchase is massive and requires a warehouse and several trucks to store and transport. In short, you need to be a big company, or to make a major investment, in order to use these bottles. The majority of big companies are oriented towards making the cheapest possible products in order to maintain the highest possible profit margin. Expensive, recycled plastic bottles are low on their priority list.
In our current economic system, the business approach that’s best for society, in the long run, is disincentivized. Luckily, consumers who practice conscious capitalism are one of the fastest growing consumer groups, which puts pressure on large companies to produce more environmentally friendly products and packaging.
Unfortunately, while shoppers care about our environment and will frequently prioritize environmentally friendly products, 95 percent of companies are making misleading claims about how environmentally friendly their products are.
One manufacturer gleefully advised us to add 1 percent recycled material and then just brand the hell out of it because “that’s what other folks do!” This dishonest practice is called greenwashing — making a product appear to be good for environmental and personal health, when in reality, it’s not.
We’re sick of being mislead, and are working hard to be transparent.
Keeping it local
Soon after we started looking for the best plastic bottle option, in January of 2018, China stopped accepting foreign recycling. This threw the US recycling industry into turmoil, and resulted in large amounts of our recycling being diverted to landfills.
When we heard the news that China had stopped accepting US recycling, we thought this would be a boon for bottles made out of recycled material. We hoped it meant there would be an overabundance of local recycling that could be reprocessed. But our hopes were dashed: there aren’t very many domestic producers that can process recycled plastic, and the few that can charge a premium and require commitments to large orders before they’ll even talk to you.
Luckily, we were able to find a reprocessor in California called CarbonLite that reprocesses California-sourced plastic. They told us that they use personal care packaging placed in California curbside recycling as part of the inputs they use. This means there are very low carbon costs for bottles’ transportation. Instead of costing more carbon to make these bottles, we’re seeing as much as a 77% reduction in carbon cost relative to a virgin bottle! Now we’re talking!
Appearance and downcycling
Even with a local reprocessor and manufacturer industry insiders continued to advise against bottles made completely from recycled materials. They thought it wasn’t a good idea because bottles made with reused plastic don’t look “pure,” and have “imperfections,” or flecks of color and a gray or brown hue. One option was to dye the plastic, although dyed plastic can’t be reused as many times, and depending on the color, heavy metals or chemicals must be used to get the desired coloring.
Another challenge we faced was that not all plastics can be recycled over and over again. Some plastics can only be reused once — after that, they’re either diverted to a landfill or reprocessed into a hard plastic product that won’t be recycled again. This transition from a recyclable product (like a bottle) to non-recyclable product (like carpeting) is called downcycling. Our solution to this issue was to switch to a different type of plastic that can be reused many times (more than 7) before being downcycled.
With the right type of plastic, our bottles can be reused over and other again. We wanted to ensure that our bottles could withstand a high number of reincarnations as consumer grade products, instead of being downcycled into a product that would likely end up in a landfill.
Overall Impact of Locally Sourced and Reprocessed Plastic
The plastic we reuse is sourced from 100% California curbside pickup, thereby creating a closed loop and avoiding downcycling, or high transportation/ carbon costs. We use 77% less energy to make these bottles than it takes to make virgin bottles.
One of the most interesting things about the folks who told us we couldn’t do this was that they were often very genuine. They felt as if they were helping us by saving us work and steering us away from challenges. These were are people who can play a big part of solving the issues their industry is creating. They just need to be shown there’s a way forward, we need to shift our focus from short term gains to long term sustainability. At Bathing Culture we hope we can help do that, even if it’s one bottle at a time.
How you can tell if your bottles are made from reused plastic
This can take a little bit of work but the first way to tell is read the label. If it doesn’t say anything about the plastic that means it’s almost certainly a virgin bottle that should be avoided. If a bottle says “Made With Post Consumer Recycled Plastic” or “Made with PCR” and doesn’t list that it’s made from 100% Post Consumer Recycled Plastic then it isn’t a sustainable bottle. This is a common greenwashing tactic where 1–25% of the plastic is reused, and the majority of it is virgin. These bottles should also be avoided.
Manufacturers using sustainable bottles have to work hard and pay more to get these bottles. So will always note on their packaging that their bottles are made from 100% Post Recycled Material.
Responsible bottles will typically call out that they have a “bottle to bottle” program or “reincarnate” their bottles. Smoky-hued, or slightly blue bottles are also a sign that the materials are reused.
As we transition our global economy to being more environmentally conscious, we have to shift our spending away from lots of low quality, environmentally short-sighted items to high quality environmentally friendly products. This is one of the most important steps we, as individuals, can make in addressing the environmental crisis (including the “climate genocide” that the United Nations international independent working group of thousands of scientist are warning of in our lifetime).
On the packaging front, we are committed to the goal of all of Bathing Cultures products being served in biodegradable packaging, and will continue to nag manufactures and scientists working in the space (feel free to send them our way).
Getting caps made from reused plastic is another huge project we’re working on. In the meantime, we’ve ensured our bottle-to-bottle program allows us to use the resources we’ve already got and is, for the time being, far more environmentally friendly than making new materials.
We’ve also pledged to be 100% carbon neutral by 2020.
Our Mind and Body wash is almost there, but there’s’ still work to do — especially as we create new products. Follow along @bathingculture to hear about our progress or check out our full environmental roadmap.
The challenges we overcome for reincarnated bottles where huge for us, but they’re tiny compared to the overall work that needs to be done. When everyone does their part, when the companies and governments step up and take the risk to make these changes, we can solve the environmental crisis.
You can help today!
Getting started is as easy as recycling your next bottle.