The social cost of personal care

Picture this. You’re on vacation, taking a walk by a beautiful beach at sunset. Something tickles your toes, and you pick it up out of curiosity. Not a pebble, not a shell; it turns out to be a plastic cap. Does it surprise you?

What you uncovered may be one of the 5.25 TRILLION pieces of macro and micro plastics that now float in our oceans. Years of erosion by the sun and wind have broken most down into invisible pieces, but well-preserved bottles from the 1940s still wash up to shores across the world. This is of course, in addition to plastic waste trapped in landfills, clogged in rivers, and accumulating on mountains.

The personal care industry popped up in the mid-1920s as military effort of WW1 ingrained strict hygiene codes among soldiers, who brought those habits home. By the 1950s, the industry had joined the plastics bandwagon alongside many others, and why not? Light, flexible, sturdy – plastics allowed products to be transported farther and more easily. Fast forward to today, plastic waste is a growing source of concern across the world.

We are consuming plastics at an alarming rate today; and a significant chunk of that is as single-use packaging for consumer products. In this form, it is often discarded within hours of use – as opposed to a long-term durable that it was designed to be.

One can get overwhelmed by the numbers; whether it is half a billion shampoo bottles thrown out per year in the US itself, or about 120 BILLION units of plastic packaging produced globally, only for cosmetics. The assessment is a lot simpler though. It can start with looking at our trash cans at home and understanding their link to the larger problem. If our collective waste can create landfills in our cities, then our collective action can also bring them down.

Not so long ago, personal care products didn’t involve excessive plastic packaging. Hair and dental care products were powders packaged in metal jars, soaps were almost exclusively bars, and the few luxury products on the market came in glass containers. Of course, there are inherent limitations to glass and metal as well. But their recovery value certainly results in better end-of-life outcomes than plastic.

And this is where product-form steps in. Over the past few decades, personal care products evolved into liquids containing upto 95% water. In this form, plastic became the most logical choice for packaging material. We also end up shipping tons of water over thousands of kilometers.

About 20 years ago, Lush Cosmetics began leading the way by solving exactly for this i.e., to get rid of the bottle, they’d have to get rid of the water. A bold design of shampoo as a solid bar, what took everyone by surprise back then, is a well-recognized and fast-growing category now.

Another aspect is ingredients. For a long time, many of our personal care and beauty products were laden with microbeads of polyethylene and polypropylene, to aid exfoliation. Such products released up to 100,000 tiny beads per squeeze, and in addition to hurting the environment, they were linked to asthma, heart disease and cancer. While legislative action has helped curb them to some extent, glitter in make-up is still very common and often comprises a polypropylene derivative. But with rising awareness, consumers are now actively seeking products with easy-to-understand ingredients and less synthetic alternatives.

On the process front, refilling is emerging as a fundamentally different notion to the linear pattern of consumption we have become used to. While still nascent (but growing) in India, supermarkets in many western countries have started keeping large dispensers where people can refill personal and home care liquids in their old bottles, and simply pay by weight. And you’d be surprised to know, there are make-up brands going refillable too!

It is important to remember that as a material, plastic is fundamentally brilliant. It has revolutionized medicine, industry, and science beyond imagination. But it wasn’t designed for single-use, and we have unfortunately done an indiscriminate amount of that for 70+ years. It’ll certainly take a village to make a dent in the plastic problem. As consumer awareness and regulatory steps grow, businesses need to deliberate more on their packaging decisions. End-of-life must be factored in as a cost – if not personal, then social – but certainly collective. The goal doesn’t need to be 100% elimination, but reduction is absolutely critical. We all benefit immensely from the social license to use plastics, so let’s resolve together to consume them more judiciously.

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