This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.
For Tara Pelletier, it came down to deodorant.
Her company, Meow Meow Tweet, had developed a formula for deodorant that she loved. It worked, it smelled great, and it was ready to make its way out into the armpits of her eager customers. The hold-up? The packaging.
Most deodorants on the market come in hard plastic cases with many tiny components, each of which is made of a different type of plastic, and most of which are not readily recyclable, even if a customer were dedicated enough to dismantle the whole thing.
Why, she thought, should a deodorant that she’d use for a few weeks or months come in a plastic case that would be around for longer than she’d be alive?
So she searched and searched for an alternative. Glass jars with metal lids worked fairly well, but some people objected to scooping the paste out with their fingers. Bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics had their own sets of environmental drawbacks. It seemed like all the packaging options she could find were some variant on bad.
Eventually, after months of searching, she found a company that made sturdy paper tubes that cradled the product neatly. Finally, a solution, she thought.
She and her coworkers have to hand-fill each tube, and their profit margins are thin because the cardboard tubes cost 60 times as much as mass-produced plastic options. And the tubes aren’t quite as convenient to use as the plastic cases familiar to most consumers. But it’s worth it, she says, not just because it makes ethical sense but to help demonstrate to others across the industry that there are alternatives—workable, functional, creative alternatives—to the plastic that has infiltrated every aspect of modern commerce.
The booming $500 billion per year global personal care industry relies on plastic. That shampoo? Housed in a plastic bottle—often fully or partly unrecyclable. That body wash? Same. But for some producers, the pervasive, often excessive plastic packaging is too much. To pare down their plastic footprint, they’re trying to reconsider the nature of the products, packaging, and supply chain itself.
How did we end up with so much plastic?
In the not-too-distant past, personal care items did not involve plastic packaging. Soaps came in bar form. Perfumes, a symbol of luxury, were packaged in elaborate glass containers. Hair-care products were powders or pomades packaged in tins or jars.
After World War I, the United States emerged as the most prolific producer and consumer of personal care and beauty products, while the European market was recovering.
During the war, the military had imposed strict hygiene codes as a way to prevent disease from spreading amongst the troops, and when those soldiers returned home, they brought with them ingrained habits of washing, shaving, and tooth-brushing. By the mid-1920s, a whole industry of “personal care” popped up; in 1926, the Lever company (which would later become Unilever, a major multinational personal care product company) kicked off an ad campaign outlining the damage “body odor” could do to one’s career and social prospects.
Simultaneously, the market for face creams, cosmetics, and other personal care products marketed to women exploded, in tandem with the rise of Hollywood movies and the invention of American glamour and beauty standards. During World War II, the U.S. government went so far as to declare lipstick a “wartime necessity,” a critical component of cultural life and morale-building.
During the plastics explosion of the mid-20th century, the personal care industry jumped on the plastics bandwagon along with many other industries. Plastics could be molded into packaging that was light, flexible, and sturdy. Items that had been packaged in heavy, delicate glass could be transported farther and more easily.
When bathing took place in a bathtub or a river, products had to work in those conditions. So soap and hair-cleaning products were solid (and some, like Ivory, were formulated so they floated on the surface of the water and didn’t sink out of reach).
But with the advent of showers by the middle of the century, product formulations began to change. Companies developed liquids and gels that ran down the drain. And customers were using and storing products inside showers—so they had to withstand an onslaught of water.
“We want liquid products that lather, moisturize, exfoliate, and also smell wonderful and fresh—all these characteristics that we've considered critical to the idea of cleanliness,” says Rachael Wakefield-Rann, a research consultant in the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney.
And across all these transitions, the industry was growing. In 1919, it was a $60 million industry in the U.S. By 1938, it was $400 million. By the 1970s, it was in the billions. The number and variety of products exploded—and along with the products came vast new amounts of packaging.
How are companies reducing plastic now?
Today, personal care products fill entire aisles of grocery stores. The industry in the U.S. has grown into a $90 billion behemoth that rivals the pet, sports, and private loan markets in economic value.
Simultaneously, the industry’s plastic footprint has ballooned. The amount of plastic packaging on U.S. products (not just on personal care items) has increased by over 120 times since 1960—with almost 70 percent of that waste piling up in landfills. Globally, the packaging industry for beauty and personal care products, which primarily reflects plastic packaging, makes up nearly $25 billion in sales.
So the challenge—cutting back on, or eliminating plastic packaging entirely—is not a small one.
The most straightforward approach is one taken by a number of small companies, like S.W. Basics, who prioritized using plastic-free packaging from their start. Adina Gregoire, the founder, chose glass for her primary packaging because of its nearly infinite recyclability, even though the bottles and jars she used cost about 10 times more than a comparable plastic alternative in the early days. She also recognized that there were other costs to glass: shipping the products costs more in dollars and carbon emissions than a lighter plastic alternative; and the jars were prone to breaking, adding to waste.
Only recently have some interesting alternatives begun to appear, she says, primarily biodegradable and bio-sourced plastics (though most of the options have their own set of downsides). “I can’t believe how behind the consumer product world is in terms of sustainability,” she says. “The options just aren’t really there yet, and the smaller brands have to ride the tailwinds of the larger companies who are pushing for R&D.” But at the same time, she says, the smaller brands and their customers are pushing the conversation forward.
In some cases, companies have tried to tackle the plastic problem by redesigning the products themselves.
Over 20 years ago, Lush Cosmetics, a U.K.-based personal care and beauty company, decided to redesign shampoo. They realized that shampoo was mostly water, most often contained in a disposable plastic bottle. To get rid of the bottle, they’d have to get rid of the water.
The company eventually came up with a formula that would incorporate most of the major ingredients of traditional shampoos—but in a solid bar from.
“At first, people didn't understand how to use it, or really what it was,” says Brandi Halls, Lush’s director of communications. “But it was really refreshing and exciting to teach them to see something in a different way.”
Rhoda Trimingham, an expert in sustainable design based at the University of Loughborough, in Leicestershire, expects to see much more of this bottom-up reconsideration in the future. “There are so many products out there, like shampoo and conditioner and moisturizer, that are 90 or 95 percent water,” she says. “So we’re really just shipping tons of water around the world in plastic containers, which is bad for the carbon footprint, the water footprint, and also the plastic footprint.”
Other companies are digging into ways to provide refills to sturdy, long-lasting, preferably not-plastic containers.
Kjaer Weiss, a Danish makeup brand, spent years developing a substantial-feeling metal case that retained the sense of “luxury beauty” the founder, Kirsten Kjaer Weis, loved in her other makeup. But from the start, she planned for that case to be refillable. A customer could swap in small, light trays of lip color or foundation as they ran out or bored of a color. And the small refill trays could be packaged with biodegradable materials rather than plastics.
“It was really the key to the brand, to make something substantial, not just feeding into the buy-and-throw-away mentality,” she says.
Another strategy for companies large and small? Thinking carefully about the products they sell in the first place. Priscilla Tsai, the founder of Cocokind, says the company wanted to produce a single-use face mask, which has proven incredibly popular in the market. But there was no way to package it sustainably, so they decided not to make or sell one.
It takes a village to solve the plastic problem
Plastic is so firmly embedded in the modern supply chain that limiting its ubiquity will inevitably be a painful process, says Trimingham, especially because the beauty and personal care industry is growing by several percent each year. That means more products flood out into consumer’s hands each year. Even if the packaging is more efficient, there’s still more of it. So it will take a concerted effort across companies of all sizes to make a dent in the plastic-shaped problem.
Some of the larger personal care companies, like Unilever and L’Oreal, have signed on to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “New Plastics Economy” goals. L’Oreal is aiming to make 100 percent of their packaging reusable, refillable, or compostable by 2025, and to source 50 percent of that packaging from recycled material. They say they have already increased the percentage of recycled plastic in their overall packaging by 19 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year.
These adjustments are playing out while consumer and government awareness of a plastics crisis has reached a fever pitch and single-use plastics bans and other regulatory approaches spread. “There’s a heightened awareness from brands that if they don’t come together to fix this, the social license to use plastic packaging—it could go away. And that would have huge impacts,” says Adam Gendell, the associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
The challenge is vast, but there’s no excuse for not trying, says Pelletier, of Meow Meow Tweet. “There are no solutions just waiting for us,” she says. “We just have to make them.”
National Geographic is committed to reducing plastics pollution. Learn more about our non-profit activities at natgeo.org/plastics. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
The National Geographic Society and Sky Ocean Ventures have launched the Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge, which asks problem solvers around the globe to develop novel solutions to tackle the world’s plastic waste crisis. Have an idea? Submit your solution by June 11 at oceanplastic-challenge.org.