A few weeks ago, I stood in my bathroom, casually contemplating what mascara to wear that day. I have several options in rotation; there’s the eye-opening full volume mascara (which I’m convinced makes me look less tired), the waterproof one (I think it was drizzling outside, so I was tabling that option), my classic brown-black for when I go au natural-ish…
But as I surveyed my stash—and the surrounding mountains of makeup and skincare on the counter—a wave of eco-anxiety washed over me. Perhaps all of this was a little much? Suddenly, all those great products looked more like a massive pile of would-be beauty trash. At first, I felt a bit sick. Then, I was inspired to do something about it. As an experiment, I decided to go zero-waste for an entire month. And yes, it was about as difficult as it sounds.
It’s time to #breakupwithplastic
If you’ve ever seen the image of a seahorse clutching a used cotton swab by wildlife photographer Justin Hofman, you know where I’m going with this. Our oceans are living—or more to the point, dying—proof: Disposable beauty consumption is out of control.
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It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it. What started as an opportunity to photograph a cute little sea horse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage. This sea horse drifts long with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago. This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans. What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet? . thanks to @eyosexpeditions for getting me there and to @nhm_wpy and @sea_legacy for getting this photo in front of as many eyes as possible. Go to @sea_legacy to see how you can make a difference. . #plastic #seahorse #wpy53 #wildlifephotography #conservation @nhm_wpy @noaadebris #switchthestick
“By 2050 we’re going to see more plastic in the ocean than fish [by weight],” says Kelsey Scarfone, water programs manager at Environmental Defence Canada, a national non-profit eco advocacy agency. Need a frightening factoid that hits a little closer to home? “Even in the Great Lakes we’re seeing the same level of plastics,” she says.
And we’re not exaggerating when we say that the consequences are dire. According to Scarfone, “when plastics break down the problem becomes even more insidious—we’re now seeing microplastics in our food supply.” Sure, plastics from personal care products account for just part of the problem, but all of those bottles, tubs and tubes do add up.
Recycling isn’t as effective as you think
If you think all that plastic is getting recycled just because you toss it in your blue bin, you’re fooling yourself. All told, only 11 percent of our plastic waste in Canada is successfully making its way through the recycling system. This is due to recycling program inefficiencies, poor consumer compliance—meaning people aren’t rinsing out their containers first, or throwing them in the recycling bin at all—and plastics that simply aren’t recyclable in the first place.
That last one is a huge problem. Yes, the technology may exist to recycle these plastics somewhere, but there’s no guarantee that your municipality’s curbside recycling program can accept them. For example, the City of Toronto can’t accept black takeout containers because they’re the same colour as the conveyer belt at the sorting plant, which makes it difficult for the plant’s technology to “see” them.
And here’s where it gets even more confusing. There are two types of recycling symbols: Resin identification codes have three flat arrows and a number in the middle, while Mobius loops have three twisted arrows and no number. It’s very easy to mistake a resin identification code for the recycling symbol, but these codes only indicate the type of plastic—they don’t necessarily mean it’s recyclable. Environmental Defense is currently lobbying for a national strategy to make the system easier to understand and stop so much plastic from ending up in landfill or the environment. (You can help by signing their petition.)
My new approach: Reduce, refill, and yes, recycle
I begin my mission by Marie Kondo-ing the heck out of my beauty counter. Everything that’s in a plastic or no-good landfill-destined container is shelved for the month. (For the record, I will use them up later. It would be pretty silly to toss a perfectly good, albeit plastic-clad, hair mask in the name of waste reduction.)
Next, I survey the survivors. I’m able to pardon a few of my favourites that have recently become fully recyclable thanks to deals with TerraCycle, a U.S. company that specializes in dealing with hard-to-recycle waste. The plastic packaging for both Eos lip balms and Weleda Skin Food products can now be mailed to TerraCycle for free (you just have to sign up online for a postage-paid envelope). I can return my tube of L’Occitane en Provence hand cream and Province Apothecary toner, including the spray pumps, to their respective stores to be taken care of. And, mercifully, a few of the natural skincare brands I love come in recyclable glass bottles, so my serums are safe.
But recycling is only part of the solution. The next frontier in the sustainable packaging story is bulk beauty. I buy a box of glass bottles with stainless steel pumps on Amazon and take them into eco+amour, a sustainable living boutique in Toronto’s east end. “I’d say that half of our customers come in carrying a kit with Mason jars and a definite plan,” says co-owner Sarah Marcus, who is also co-founder of local natural beauty brand Lines of Elan. Though the shop sells beautiful glass bottles you can fill with bulk shampoo, conditioner, body wash and more, they also keep a stash of sterilized jars behind the counter, which customers can borrow. “A lot of customers leave with a refill even though they didn’t come in with anything,” says Marcus. And as it turns out, buying in bulk isn’t just good for the environment; it’s also cheaper. You save between $2 and $5 on most of the refill products they carry.
Living that sustainable life is not without challenges
There’s definitely some beauty behaviour modification required to make this zero-waste ethos work, and it doesn’t end at refillable jars. It’s going to take some extra effort to mail back my empty face creams and lip balms to TerraCycle, for example. And I miss single-use makeup wipes.
But face, body and hair care were relatively easy changes to make, and this new focus on packaging has lead me to some incredible discoveries: For one, I’ve swapped my old Sunday self-care sheet masking routine for a powder mask (Odacité Synergie Masque) and am loving my new glow. When the bottle is empty I can toss it in the blue bin—or upcycle it into a flower vase, suggests Laura Townsend, marketing director for The Detox Market, which sells this and many more sustainably packaged beauty products. “The Miron glass is so stunning, we use these as flower pots at home,” she says.
The *real* challenge turned out to be makeup. The options aren’t exactly abundant when it comes to even near zero-waste cosmetics, and that’s especially true for people with darker skin or complexion challenges. Elate Cosmetics, for example, has one of the largest sustainably packaged lines—its products come in compostable bamboo compacts and refills are wrapped in seed paper—and they still only have eight shades of foundation (which claim to cover up to 16 skin tones). I can probably do with fewer makeup options, to be honest. (Four weeks ago I counted 18 tubes of lipstick and gloss in my makeup mountain… and I almost always wear some variation of nude, anyway.) But that is certainly not the case for women of colour, as Fenty Beauty has proven.
My favourite zero-waste beauty discoveries
Over the course of the past month I’ve slowly curated what you might call a cosmetics capsule collection. It’s everything I need, and nothing more. My new makeup tray generates less waste, leaves more space on my bathroom counter and probably saves me time every morning—I no longer debate which mascara to wear, because there’s only one. (It’s Kjaer Weis lengthening mascara, BTW. It comes in the sleekest refillable stainless steel tube and wears as well as my old favourites.) And yes MK, this new routine is sparking major joy.
Find five of my fave zero-waste products in the gallery below.