Plastic Beauty: The Cosmetic Industry’s Environmental Impact

Found on store shelves, displayed on shiny billboards or flashing on our Facebook feeds, it seems the reach of the cosmetic care and beauty industry is everywhere. A $500 billion dollar a year industry, the cosmetics sector has seen unprecedented growth. The average British teenager uses sixteen different makeup products every day. However, with this astronomical growth in the beauty industry and products flying off the shelves at rapid rates, what effect does this have on the environment, and is sustainability in the beauty industry something that we should be concerned about?


Not so Pretty Pollution

One of the main struggles with sustainability in the beauty industry is waste, in particular plastic pollution. Cosmetic industry pollution accounts for close to eight million tonnes of ocean plastic pollution every year, this astronomical amount of plastic has drastic effects on sea life and ocean eco-systems. According to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, reef systems that are choked by plastic pollution are 90% more likely to die from disease, while plastic pollution is often a major factor in population decline in ocean species.


With the beauty industry producing 120 billion units of packaging per year and the UN estimating that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, the beauty industry’s love affair with plastic is a major concern.

However, the beauty industry’s environmental impact doesn’t end with the sea. With most cosmetic packages non-recyclable, it is estimated that 70% of US cosmetic waste since 1960 has ended up in landfills and with an average moisturiser container taking 1000 years to breakdown, most of that waste is still there.


Another blow to the beauty industry’s environmental impact is deforestation. Deforestation in the beauty industry is primarily to produce palm oil, with a 2017 report finding that palm oil was used in 70% of all beauty products.

Deforestation for palm oil plantations accounts for close to 50% of deforestation in Borneo since 2000, while deforestation and other changes in land use devastate wildlife populations and create a significant percentage of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation and palm oil use is another huge concern for sustainability in the beauty industry.


What can we do about it?

The great news is that the beauty industry’s environmental impact is not an unsolvable problem. Many organisations are taking steps to limit their environmental impact, moving away from palm oil-based products and increasing the recyclability of packaging. Even industry giants like Olay are trialling reusable packaging schemes in a bid to limit the cosmetic industry’s pollution levels.


Taking steps in our everyday lives, like checking the cosmetic brands we buy to ensure they are operating with sustainable practices and buying products with recyclable packaging all help to improve sustainability in the beauty industry. With a recent study finding that using refillable containers for beauty products could cut the carbon emission of cosmetic products by over 50%, shopping from organisations that offer reusable packaging schemes is a great way to limit cosmetic industry pollution levels.


Worth hundreds of billions of dollars the cosmetic industry is not going anywhere and while unsustainable practices run rampant in this sector, there is a movement towards change. As the world becomes more aware of the beauty industry’s environmental impact the power lies with you to support organisations working to reduce pollution levels to create a new and sustainable future for the cosmetic industry.


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