The future of beauty isn't recycling - it's refills

Written by Emma Lewisham, Founder of Emma Lewisham Skincare

The beauty industry is currently responsible for an estimated 120 billion units of packaging annually* - the large majority of which will never be recycled.

The recycling industry is a business, and like all businesses it’s underpinned by supply and demand, and the demand for the types of recycled plastic that make up beauty packaging is low, to non-existent. Therefore, despite a significant amount of beauty packaging being ‘technically’ recyclable, the economics aren’t there to justify ‘actually’ recycling it. In reality, most beauty packaging, recyclable or not, is destined to be single use - more often than not being sorted from recycling bins and sent directly to landfill. In addition, the single use nature of this packaging makes it the largest contributor of carbon emissions in the beauty industry.

This non-recycling of beauty packaging is a dark underbelly of our industry that needs to be properly addressed. The beauty industry has become fixated on recycling as a solution to minimising waste, however it simply isn’t the answer.

It’s widely accepted that we must move away from the traditional linear economic model of ‘take-make-waste’ and towards a circular economic model of ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’. However, the hierarchy of these principles within circularity is of the utmost importance. Reducing and reusing packaging should always come before recycling. In beauty, this means focussing our resources on refillable options.

At Emma Lewisham, we are proudly leading the way in refillable packaging, as the industry's first brand to offer refills for 100% of our products. 79%** of our packaging consists of refillable pods that can be removed, sterilised and refilled, for indefinite use. The remaining 21%** of our packaging is refilled using refill pouches that upon return to us, we pay to have recycled through our specialised recycling partner, Terracycle. To ensure our empty pods and pouches are returned to us for refilling or recycling, we have implemented a streamlined global takeback programme - The Emma Lewisham Beauty Circle - at no cost to our customers. Our circular, refillable model has been independently proven to reduce the carbon footprint of our products by up to 74%**.

To solve the industry's waste problem and reduce carbon emissions, businesses have to take ownership and responsibility for their packaging. It is no longer good enough to claim recyclability and leave the onus on customers and government organisations - especially armed with the information that beauty packaging is not recycled through kerbside systems.

Industry wide, resources must be redirected towards investment and innovation in refillable, reusable packaging solutions. With innovation still in its infancy, collaboration has a key role to play if the beauty industry is to meet global climate goals. We cannot continue to think, strategise and operate in the same way and expect change - it requires a new way of thinking. It’s about understanding that collaboration - the sharing of ideas, innovations and IP - will actually strengthen all businesses involved, not weaken them.

In October 2021, we released the IP surrounding Emma Lewisham’s industry first achievements in climate positive and circular-designed skincare. We shared our refillable packaging moulds, returns and recycling processes, and carbon calculation guides. While we invested heavily in this IP as a business, we understand the importance of placing collaboration over competition when it comes to progressive and meaningful change. Through collaboration, we have an opportunity to expedite the positive impact of our social, environmental and financial impacts - the triple bottom line. I urge business leaders not to be afraid of collaboration - it will not negatively impact your profits but it will positively impact our future.

The future of beauty isn’t recycling - it’s refills - and innovation through collaboration is our way forward.

* Zero Waste Week
** Certified by Toitu Envirocare