Creating a circular beauty industry is proving incredibly difficult. The cosmetics and personal care categories face an obstacle course on their quest for sustainability, with hoops to jump through that include toxic ingredients, hazardous waste from common items like nail polish and perfume, plus so, so much plastic. The United Nations estimates that we produce 300 million tons of plastic trash every year (nearly the weight of the entire human population), and beauty packaging is largely to blame thanks to pumps, mirrored compacts, and caps that can’t be processed by curbside recycling programs. Up to this point, much of the innovation in low-impact environmental practices has been led by adaptable indie brands that set the standard for Big Beauty with clever mushroom-based Styrofoam alternatives and compostable materials. Today, Nordstrom’s TerraCycle partnership takes a significant step toward a more circular future with BeautyCycle, a product take-back and recycling initiative accepting a high-low mix of used-up beauty staples that matches your medicine cabinet—rather than the store’s inventory.
“Nordstrom is the first major retailer to offer a beauty packaging recycling program for all brands,” says Gemma Lionello, the company’s executive vice president of accessories and beauty. “We committed to take back 100 tons of beauty packaging to ensure it’s recycled by 2025,” she shares of setting Nordstrom’s corporate social responsibility goals for the next five years, which include reducing single-use plastic by 50% and ensuring that 15% of all products are considered sustainable. To make their 200,000-pound promise happen, BeautyCycle will be available in 94 locations, where it will accept beauty packaging purchased from any retailer and made by any brand. It’s a goal that’s quite possible, based on the example that clean beauty retailer Credo set when it offered its take-back program for all beauty products, regardless of where they’re purchased. As of April 2020, Credo announced that after three years of partnering with TerraCycle, 6,300 customers brought “empties” into their stores, resulting in the proper recycling of more than 15 tons of products. To understand the scale of Nordstrom’s BeautyCycle initiative: For every Credo boutique (currently 11 nationwide), there are more than eight Nordstrom locations accepting products, promising to create an even more widespread movement—and conversation—among American beauty enthusiasts.A Nordstrom BeautyCycle stationPhoto: Courtesy of Nordstrom
The faster the concept catches on, the better. “The global cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging every year, and much of this waste is not collected by curbside programs,” says Sue Kauffman, TerraCycle’s North American public relations manager. “Many of TerraCycle’s recycling partnerships are mail-in programs that invite consumers to send in product or packaging waste that is specific to the company that produced it or whom we’ve partnered with,” Kauffman notes. “The recycling partnerships TerraCycle has with Credo and BeautyCycle are a bit different since they allow consumers to drop off their waste at in-store collection points.” The brand-agnostic aspect of this is essential in creating the largest impact because to create a system that consumers adopt, convenience is key. “We encourage customers to designate an area or container in your bathroom to keep your empties until you’re ready to bring them to Nordstrom to be recycled,” says Lionello. The nearest drop-off can be located on its digital map feature, and a stroll to the beauty counter is all it takes to give packaging that would have likely been sent to a landfill a second life.
In their next act, beauty products take on the form of anything from outdoor seating to hardware store supplies. “After TerraCycle receives the collected waste, the material is consolidated into large volumes before it is shredded and sorted by material type. From there, it is cleaned, melted, and recycled into a wide range of new plastic products, such as park benches and picnic tables,” Kauffman explains. “Likewise, metals are separated using a system of magnets and smelted to create raw material for reuse as a base material for stamped product applications like nuts and bolts, washers, and rings. Glass is cleaned and sorted by color for processing, where it is crushed and melted to be used in new glass products or other applications.”
Even with these innovations in the recycling process, it’s important to keep in mind that some beauty products simply can’t be recycled at this point. These include aerosol cans, electronics like blow-dryers and straighteners, perfume bottles, and nail polishes and removers. “Due to federal regulations, some beauty products are classified as hazardous waste at end of life due to the product either having high alcohol content, which creates a fire risk in transit, or the packaging itself being pressurized,” Kauffman says.
Ideally, educating consumers about the impossibility of incorporating certain items into a circular beauty economy will encourage them to seek alternatives or pare down their overall use. Instead of a pressurized can of shaving cream, one might opt for The Art of Shaving’s Lavender Shaving Soap, for example. Similarly, making it crystal clear that an empty Burt’s Bees lip balm, Chanel eyeliner pencil nub, BareMinerals mascara tube, and Davines conditioner tub can all be bundled and handed off to a Nordstrom beauty rep in a single eco-friendly step is news that we can all use. “I’m excited to connect with our customers in a new and meaningful way, especially because this is such an important subject,” says Lionello. “I hope BeautyCycle makes it easier for everyone to recycle their beauty packaging so that we can leave this Earth better than we found it.”